My good friend, author and creative writing teacher Constance Adler, closed her recent Facebook post about the May 2 Orleans Parish library millage election with a line that made me chuckle.
“If the libraries close,” Connie wrote, “the terrorists win.”
After I stopped laughing, it occurred to me that she’s absolutely right.
Okay, maybe not literally, at least not in New Orleans.
Literacy, exposure to other viewpoints and all the other good things libraries represent are indeed potent tools against the dark forces that fuel terrorism. But despite Gov. Bobby Jindal’s hysterical primary-season protests to the contrary, we’ve got more immediate concerns on the domestic front.
Yet the same argument holds. Functional, thriving libraries can help address the many forces that hold New Orleans back, from crime to illiteracy. They give kids a safe place to go, the tools to follow their curiosity and even homework help. They offer adults assistance in learning to read, and a place to fill out job applications online. They are a great equalizer in a city that still suffers from a deep digital divide.
More broadly, they act as community anchors, hosting story hours, meetings and all manner of mind-broadening programming, and even enhancing the surrounding areas’ property values.
“The only negative is when we’re closed,” said Bernard Charbonnet Jr., library board chairman and lawyer. “And we’re closed a lot.”
That, of course, is the rub. Now that most neighborhood branches have been rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, the libraries’ operating costs outpace the revenue from an existing dedicated millage. City officials talk a good game about the libraries’ importance, but when budget time comes, there always seem to be more pressing priorities. For this year, the City Council came up with $70,000 for a grant writer and $200,000 for a bookmobile ($50,000 short of the total cost, Charbonnet said), but far more is needed to bolster the operating the budget.
That’s left library officials with a stark choice: Find a dedicated revenue stream or drastically reduce their footprint.
There’s no status quo option on the ballot.
If the voters approve the 2.5 mills — enough to raise an estimated $8.25 million annually for the next 25 years — things will get better. Library officials say they’ll be able to expand hours by 30 percent, open six branch libraries seven days a week — as of now, most branches are closed on not just Sundays and but also Fridays — and proceed with plans to renovate and open the last Hurricane Katrina-damaged facility, the Nora Navra Library in the 7th Ward (the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already allotted the money to do the renovation, but without the new revenue, library officials say they can’t afford to open it). They also hope to increase collections, programs and technology.
If residents vote the millage down, library officials predict a 35 percent decrease in hours and the closure of as many of the half the system’s 14 branches.
Is that really the image a rebounding New Orleans wants to present to the world? Is that who we want to be?
Make no mistake, choosing to invest in libraries would represent a real culture shift.
New Orleans currently spends less than a third of what East Baton Rouge Parish invests in its libraries per capita, and about half of what Jefferson Parish spends. Support badly trails other large Southern cities and even cities across the country with higher poverty rates. Detroit; Newark, New Jersey; and Gary, Indiana, each spend more per person on libraries than New Orleans does.
That doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen in a city that sees its libraries as not just valuable in their own right, but also as part and parcel of all the priorities that have an easier time getting funded, from public safety and education to infrastructure.
Still, pick a branch, check the limited schedule and stop by some time, and you’ll see a steady stream of visitors. There’s clearly a demand for what the libraries offer.
“We don’t take our libraries seriously, but the people do,” Charbonnet said last week. Next Saturday, we’ll find out just how much.