City Librarian Martha Brogan toasted the free press. Mayor Toni Harp gave an impassioned appeal for the public pursuit of knowledge. Michael Morand recalled attempts at surveillance under the Patriot Act, then pointed to libraries as the unspoken heroes of that moment and the evening.
Through it all, the audience cheered, then turned over some of its cash for a cause.
Striking an unexpected though timely political tone Tuesday evening, Brogan and others kicked off the annual fundraising Mardi Gras celebration at the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL), drawing cheers and raucous whoops from the 300 in attendance.
Taking the second-floor veranda as her stage, Brogan addressed a masked crowd that stood beneath multicolored banners, warm spotlights, and balloons. The event is a major fundraiser to support the public library system; Tuesday night, the same evening President Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress, New Haven partied to its own political drummer, reflecting the growing role its library system has played in the local civic sphere as it has adapted to a new century.
“This evening is dedicated to upholding the democratic values represented by the media and by our public library,” she said. “Today, while we’ve grown to five locations, a readmobile, and extensive collection of print and online resources, we’ve stayed true to our original mission of providing full and unlimited access to information and knowledge.”
“Mardi Gras celebrates the public library’s vital role in the community and also focuses attention on the extent to which we rely on you,” she added.
That’s especially true this year; a budget address from Harp Tuesday afternoon offered no increases for the library, which relies on outside benefactors such as the Friends group that organized Tuesday night’s affair. This year’s independent fundraising efforts are going toward a new multimillion dollar home in the under-construction Q House for the library’s Stetson branch, currently sandwiched into the Dixwell Shopping Plaza. The library already has those funds, but is working to bring in individual gifts — to the tune of over a million dollars — for additional expenses.
”It is great to be here in a time of celebration and a time of rededication,” NHFPL Board President Morand added. “In the time we’re in, the librarians are the ones who stand firm, and show the way.”
That “way,” despite a heavy orange shadow that stayed the night, seemed to point toward celebration of the library and the community it has fostered in its 130 years. As speakers wrapped up a short series of remarks, a small Mardi Gras parade and impromptu brass band launched into “When The Saints Go Marching In,” winding around banisters as instrumentalists and dancers made their way downstairs.
”That was the most exciting part,” said NHFPL Board Member Tori Rysz, who helps coordinate the event every year. Since 2015, Rysz has brought in dancers for the parade portion of the evening. Last year, library patrons got a taste of the crew from Escapade at Lyric Hall; this year, Elm City Dance Company graced the library. But no one had known that there would be some brass until a few kids from the Hillhouse High School marching band showed up with their instruments.
In the library’s main room, attendees mixed and mingled, testing out herb-topped Mardi Gras cocktails as they queued up for photos from Lotta Studio, squirreled away chunks of roquefort and brie, and checked in with old friends.
Dancing a tiny bit by a large, brightly adorned flowerpot, colleagues Samantha Dixon and Sarah Masotta took in the lay of the land, pointing out masks they liked — a few simple harlequins, wiry frames adorned with rhinestones and glitter, or the occasional feather-filled creation.
In an adjoining room, the fiction stacks had been covered in bright, shiny streamers to make way for food booths and dancing. At one end, a band rocked through pop hits of the last five years. On the other, donuts that ensured a sweet ending to the evening. It was Mardi Gras, after all.