New Orleans Libraries, Rebuilding from Katrina

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By Kim-Uyen Tran, Associate Director, Technical Services & Collection Development, New Orleans Public Library, and Louise Schaper, Mls | Library Consultant

Photos courtesy of New Orleans Public Library

The New Orleans Public Library, founded in 1896, is the second oldest library in Louisiana. Governed by a nine-member board, NOPL currently operates 14 facilities including a main library located in the Central Business District, across from City Hall. Its mission is to inspire the individual and enrich the community through access to information, resources, technology and programming that is delivered by knowledgeable and creative staff. NOPL serves the 343,829 residents of New Orleans, a city still focused on recovery, as well as improving schools, reducing the high school dropout rate and increasing the literacy level of elementary age children. 

Seven NOPL branches were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Five of these are currently operated out of temporary facilities, while new ones, slated to open by 2012, are being built through a combination of FEMA, Community Development Block Grants and private funding. The new branches will increase total square feet of library space by 22% over pre-Katrina library space to 275,000 square feet. 

The new branches bring needed space for library services, but funding operations will be a major challenge in the year leading up to the openings. NOPL has one of the lowest levels of funding among similar sized communities. Operating funds are derived from a dedicated property tax, but automatic rollbacks as valuations rise mean the library is unable to keep up with rising costs in operations let alone fund expansion. In 2010 an attempt to garner City Council support for a roll up in the millage rate failed by one vote.

In the years following Hurricane Katrina, the library was faced with innumerable competing priorities but focused on reopening libraries. Initially, most of its employees were laid off or relocated, but many were gradually rehired as those libraries that were spared the disaster’s force were reopened as a much needed resource center and eager public. Most impressive is the library’s concerted and successful efforts to redevelop the library’s collections, improve the technology infrastructure and reinstate programming. Collections are being restored and circulation, up 20% in 2011, is climbing towards pre-Katrina levels. 

Once basic library operations were in place, the library board undertook a master planning process in anticipation of rebuilding and later an operational assessment.  Currently the board is focused on securing sustainable leadership and funding. 

The New Orleans Public Library focuses on both youth and adults and offers summer reading programs, the Teen Zone, adult literacy through its partnership with the YMCA, e-books, homework tutoring and job/career assistance. They also have a partnership with the Martin Luther King School as the MLK Branch (co-located within an elementary school in the Ninth Ward) and its latest branch serving the Central City community at the Mahalia Jackson Community Center.

Long term NOPL will need to address the continued poor condition of its main library, considered an architectural icon when it first opened in 1958. While the main library reopened in October 2005 as a Disaster Recovery Center for FEMA and as a library, and by January 2006 the library returned to its pre-Katrina hours of service, it is still in need of repairs. The library’s master plan calls for replacement of the main library, but the struggling city government has been unable to make it a priority. In its basement lies the official City Archives that date back to 1769 in which it was officially part of the library’s responsibility in 1946. Photos from the hurricane show flooding within feet of this precious preserve of the city’s history. 

As NOPL works toward becoming an urban model of 21st century libraries—a library system that defines New Orleans as a great place to live and work, it will need the help of library and book lovers everywhere.  Most needed are gifts of cash and appreciated assets.

Gifts can be directed to the:

Friends of the New Orleans Public Library
219 Loyola Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70112 
(504) 596-2587

New Orleans Public Library Foundation
219 Loyola Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70112
(504) 596-2552