Roughly a decade ago, New Orleans was devastated by one of the biggest natural disasters to ever hit the United States of America: Hurricane Katrina. In its wake, not only was the immediate destruction that displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes or worse, but also an impending, ongoing struggle that would plague many of the city’s institutions.
Records offices and other public entities were destroyed, along with their contents, over the course of just a few days. The public library system in New Orleans was one of the hardest hit examples. The city’s 12 branches were almost all destroyed, and those that weren’t completely abandoned were deemed unusable for the time being and closed, sometimes indefinitely. Some 80% of the library’s staff was laid off, through a combination of workplace destruction and displacement due to home damage.
Recognizing the importance of learning spaces like libraries to a community, several organizations, including the American Library Association, began to pitch in to help put the city’s system back on its feet. Now, the city is hoping to devise a more sustainable investment structure in its library system in order to keep it not only maintained, but also moving forward for the foreseeable future. The news comes just in time, as well, as budget sources estimate that the current resources allocated to the library will dry up by midway through 2016, at which point the system will no longer have the funding needed to maintain its current levels of operation. As other cities have learned, this can lead to reduced hours, staff layoffs, closed branches, reduction in available materials, the inability of libraries to keep up with technological demands, and more.
For this reason, on May 2nd, New Orleans will be voting on a millage, or a property tax, whose funding will go completely toward the library funding for the city. The tax is expected to raise about $8 million per year and would be in place for the next 25 years, aiming to not only sustain but also to enhance and keep competitive the city’s library resources.
In January, City Council members voted in favor of placing the millage on the ballot. One councilman explained his reasoning poetically, if not slightly dramatically, “A good library system is good crime prevention… and closed doors on a library are closed minds.” A coalition formed of the wives of several former mayors of the city also endorsed the millage recently, urging their communities to place weight and importance on fighting illiteracy and ensuring libraries continue to be attractive pillars of the community for youth.
According to Friends of New Orleans Public Library, the passage of the millage could have immediate and dramatic effects, as could its rejection. For starters, the group says that passage could mean the re-opening of a branch in the very near future, and that current library hours could be expanded with increased payroll for librarians. If the measure fails, however, they warn the prospect of the system gradually shrinking to half its original size over the next two years becomes a daunting and probable reality.