Magazine article American Libraries

Two Years and Counting: New Orleans Libraries after Katrina

Magazine article American Libraries

Two Years and Counting: New Orleans Libraries after Katrina

Article excerpt

The spray-painted symbols on the front door of the Robert E. Smith library look like graffiti. Anywhere else, it would be evidence of vandalism, but because this is New Orleans the symbols are recognizable as one of the tens of thousands of Urban Search and Rescue markings still visible on buildings around the city. These are the letters and numbers that were painted on houses and businesses two years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (AL, Oct. 2005, p. 14) to indicate that the structure had been searched for casualties.

The USAR markings consist of a large "X" with abbreviations and figures in three or four of the spaces around the arms of the X--depending on what was found inside the building. On the front door of the Smith branch, the spray-painted numbers "9-25" at the top stands for the date when the building was searched. In the left quadrant, "FL 2" is the unit that searched it, an element of the Florida National Guard. The right quadrant is blank because no hazards were found on site, and at the bottom quadrant of the X, a zero indicates that no bodies were found inside. For many houses throughout this part of the city, that number was something other than zero.

Located in the middle to upper--middle class Lakeview neighborhood, the Smith branch is about a mile from the 17th Street Canal breach, one of the major breaches in the flood control system surrounding New Orleans that occurred after Katrina. Smith was a complete loss after having 10 feet of water in it for several weeks, and it is one of eight of the city's 13 branches in similar straits. Pre-Katrina, the Smith branch was one of the biggest and busiest in the city, averaging 12,000 items circulated each month. Two years later, it is a gutted shell. The surrounding neighborhood has an encouraging number of houses that have been cleaned and fixed, and which are occupied, but many are still abandoned and empty. A bookmobile donated by the Friends of the Medina County (Ohio) District Library is parked night and day near the Smith branch entrance, but is only open 14 hours a week. A shortage of staff prevents it from being open longer or actually being driven. This June, patrons visiting the Smith bookmobile checked out 568 items.

Before Katrina, New Orleans Public Library had total holdings of 800,000 and 216 employees who served a city with a population of 454,000. Two years later, five branches and the main library have reopened, one is served by a bookmobile, two are in temporary facilities, and there are 90 employees. A total of 320,000 items in the system's collections were lost, and the city's population is now estimated to be between 280,000 and 300,000. But the view of the future is optimistic: The goal of the NOPL staff, administrators, and board of directors is to "build back better"--not to only replace what was lost but to make New Orleans an exemplar of what a large urban public library system should be in the 21st century.

Challenges and choices

City Librarian William Johnson resigned in the summer of 2006, and acting city librarian Geraldine Harris left that November. A search committee geared up and since then the system has been run by senior administrators. Also in November 2006, Tulane University Dean of Libraries Lance Query began serving pro bono as "special consultant for administration" to the NOPL Board. Query notes that because the NOPL system is funded primarily from a dedicated property tax, with fewer residents and fewer properties being taxed, long-range planning is difficult.

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"We're faced with a chicken-and-egg problem," Query says. "We want to serve the population of the city, but if we don't know where they'll be, we don't know where to rebuild." Query believes that a better library system for New Orleans is doable, but just as the city is unlikely to return to its pre-Katrina size in the foreseeable future, it will be a library system on a smaller scale. …

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