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New Orleans Public Library Expands

Alex Woodward on the rapid growth of the NOPL. Can funding meet the demand?

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Mayor Mitch Landrieu admitted he took his first puff of a cigarette (a Kool) steps away from the Rosa F. Keller Memorial Library in Broadmoor — albeit many years before it reopened in March 2012.

  At a ribbon cutting March 16, Landrieu, with members of the New Orleans City Council, Broadmoor Improvement Association members and funding agencies, traced the genesis of the library's reopening. Neighborhood residents had gathered rain or shine in the months after Hurricane Katrina, when the neighborhood itself barely had any services, to ensure a library would return. Inside the rebuilt library — a sleek, LEED-certified, 9,000-square-foot space with classrooms, modern lighting and a café — a dozen computers guard aisles of books, surrounded by inspirational literary quotes on the walls.

  It was the first of several library reopenings scheduled for 2012. Following Rosa Keller, the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) opened two more (one in Lakeview, another in Gentilly) in the same week. In April, it reopened a location in eastern New Orleans. This summer, another will open in Algiers, and plans begin later this year for a branch in Treme. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods destroyed many NOPL locations beyond repair.

  "When she's at her best, New Orleans is better than any place in the world," said Landrieu, who has repeated the refrain often, to applause. The libraries, he added, were built "how they've always supposed to be."

  The libraries are the beneficiaries of several grants totaling millions of dollars; FEMA, Community Development Block Grants, bonds, and, in Broadmoor's case, the Carnegie Corporation and Clinton Global Initiative, all provided significant dollars — more than $30 million — to rebuild the libraries.

  With four (and soon to be five) new libraries in its current fleet of 14, NOPL, headed by new city librarian Charles Brown, is poised to usher in a wave of community rebuilding efforts, literacy programs, writing workshops and, of course, a circulation of books, e-books, magazines, CDs and DVDs the size of which New Orleans has not seen since Katrina. Can it keep up?

"It's one of the many signs that their neighborhood and the city is coming back," says Brown, who was hired as city librarian in November 2011. Brown previously served as city librarian in Charlotte, N.C., which suffered severe budget cuts and was forced to close four of its 24 libraries when the library system lost $10 million in 18 months.

  "One small library was really a community anchor there," he says. "That was the most wrenching of decisions that had to be made. Yet there were two regional libraries within approximately five miles of that location in an area that was relatively affluent with a great deal of mobility. ... Nevertheless, it was unpopular, but the library had no real alternative. We couldn't support the 24 locations it had."

  Rebuilding the libraries in New Orleans was one thing. (Brown arrived well after plans were in place and ground was broken on new library projects.) But operating dollars for staff, services and other projects is another. NOPL is funded nearly exclusively through millages, which average about $7.8 million for NOPL each year.

  "This year the library has dipped into its reserves to open the new locations," Brown says. "But they're not open the hours we'd like — most are open 42 hours a week, and they're closed Fridays and Sundays. But we did maintain the same level of operations at the new facilities we previously offered. That was done with reserve funding."

  The city's general fund in its projected budget for 2012 doesn't set aside any funds for NOPL, so NOPL dipped into its reserve to add $4 million to its estimated $8 million from millage. Brown says he plans to discuss potential funding strategies with Landrieu and City Council. (The Landrieu administration did not comment when asked whether the mayor would oppose hiking millage for library resources.)

  "The reserves will be adequate for the next year or two," Brown says. "At this point we could not maintain the current level of services with just the millage we're receiving."

  Those services include staffing 150 full-time employees, offering computers and keeping regular daily hours (except Fridays and Sundays). And neighborhoods are hungry for more. East New Orleans Library saw nearly 4,000 visitors in less than a month. Its 60 computers were logged into more than 1,500 times, and users logged more than 1,000 hours of PC use within a few weeks after it opened.

  That location, however, already has scaled back its technology lab services because the library doesn't have the staff to keep up with demand. (Computer users are directed to the library's 16 other computers.)

  That library's visitors also are demanding more in circulation (materials in Vietnamese and Spanish languages), more classes, and meeting space (each new location offers meeting spaces — East New Orleans has two).

  "Despite the idea that 'We have the Internet. We don't need a library,' libraries are experiencing greater numbers of usage and heavier circulation than ever before," says Jessica Styons, associate director for branch services. "We're increasing our circulation, which includes traditional books," as well as CDs, DVDs, and e-books. NOPL's 2012 circulation of materials at each location has more than doubled its 2011 totals.

  In June, NOPL welcomes new assistant city librarian Charles McMorran, who wraps his post as executive director of New City Library and previously served at Queens Borough Public Library, which hosts one of the largest circulations of urban libraries in the U.S. Brown says he hopes McMorran can help bring New Orleans up to speed.

According to the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, more than 40 percent of people ages 16 and older in the city struggle with basic literacy, nearly double the national average. Brown says NOPL will tackle literacy in New Orleans starting this fall.

  "We really want to prepare students for school readiness as early as possible and ensure success in school once they get there," he says. "The city has an alarmingly high rate of adult illiteracy. ... and the library hopes to make this the last adult generation that suffers from lack of literacy."

  NOPL will roll out its family literacy classes in the fall at the Rosa Keller location in Broadmoor, and in June, NOPL also will begin summer reading programs in at least four locations. It's one of the ways, Brown says, he hopes to change the perception of libraries are mere book-lending spaces and instead, as the Seattle Public Library termed them, "community living rooms."

  "Libraries are no longer, and should no longer, be thought of just going to pick up your books and leaving," Styons says. "There's still a heavy research component — assisting students with work for school — but also people want to be able to lounge with their laptop or smartphone. Things need to be mobile in the library. We know that's the direction we want to move in. ... We try to stay a little ahead of the trend, but in New Orleans we're catching up."

  NOPL will also apply that philosophy retroactively to its other, older libraries and look for ways to improve their look, and, over time, Brown says, "spruce them up."

  Meanwhile, Broadmoor also serves as a testing ground for retail space under NOPL. Ryan Haro opened The Green Dot Café inside the space with Greg Montelaro, who's developing lunch and weekend brunch menus. The space is named after the green dot placed on maps of the neighborhood by rebuilding committees — a note to mark potential razing and demolition.

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