A city with a vibrant culture at its heart needs a strong public library system to nurture its traditions, expand its community of learners and position itself for the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

That’s why we urge New Orleans residents to approve a new property tax on the May 2 ballot to help the city’s library system survive and grow.

The New Orleans Public Library has been underfunded for generations, and its current path isn’t sustainable. For many years, the library was supported through the city’s general fund, but in 1986, with that support dwindling, voters approved a 4-mill tax to cover the system’s operations. In 2008, as residents struggled to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, the millage was rolled back to 3.14 mills.

But as libraries reopened, the library’s funding hasn’t kept pace. The system has dipped into its savings to stay afloat, and without new revenue, the library could exhaust its reserve fund by the middle of next year. The proposed additional 2.5-mill tax on the May 2 ballot would generate an estimated $8.25 million each year, bringing total annual revenues to $17.75 million, according to library officials. That would still be a modest budget for the library system of a major city, as a survey of other communities makes clear.

In St. John the Baptist Parish, for example, per capita annual support for the public library is $102.73. In Jefferson Parish, it’s $49.49. East Baton Rouge Parish residents pay $84.19 per capita for public libraries, and Lafayette Parish residents pay $52.19 per capita.

With libraries as with anything else, users tend to get what they pay for. And in New Orleans, where per capita spending on libraries is a meager $24.54, the paucity shows. Hours of operation lag behind those of many comparable cities, as do the facilities.

As New Orleans struggles with high rates of illiteracy — a great hindrance to economic development and a big factor in civic disengagement and crime — it must do everything it can to widen its circle of readers. The New Orleans Public Library is a critical part of that mission, but it cannot thrive or even survive as a meaningful institution without new funding.

Not everyone supports the library’s proposed 25-year property tax. The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research is opposing the proposal — arguing, among other concerns, that the library needs a strategic plan for its operations. A strategic plan for the library is surely a worthy goal. But an extensive study isn’t necessary to see that without more money, the library can’t effectively do the basics, keeping its branches open when people need them, and giving patrons access to quality reference materials and technology.

We urge a yes vote for the library tax.