Last week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, flanked by city officials and Charles Brown, city librarian and executive director of the New Orleans Public Library, reopened the Algiers Regional Library, which had been closed since Hurricane Katrina. It was the fifth library opened by the city in the last four months, the others being in Broadmoor, eastern New Orleans, Lakeview and Gentilly. A Treme branch is set to open in the next two to three years.
But Hurricane Katrina was hardly the first hit to the city's public libraries. Twenty-six years ago, we almost lost our entire library system. In 1986, the city budget crisis was so severe that library monies had to be transferred back into the city's general fund, threatening to shut down all library branches. As some branches closed and others cut hours severely, the New Orleans Business Council came to the rescue with a $350,000 check and a challenge: New Orleans needed to find an ongoing source of revenue for its libraries.
That autumn, New Orleanians imposed a property tax millage dedicated to city libraries. That millage now generates almost $7.8 million a year. While voters shot down other proposed taxes that year, the library millage passed with 75 percent of the vote. At the time, pollster Ed Renwick told the Associated Press, "In all of my polls, it had overwhelming support. ... I think the prevailing opinion was along the line of 'How in a civilized society could we close our libraries?'"
A good question, one that is as relevant today as it was in 1986 — because that's what's likely to happen in some of Louisiana's poorest parishes, thanks to Gov. Bobby Jindal. The governor submitted a proposed budget for the current fiscal year that cut nearly $900,000 in library funds, almost all of them from rural parishes. As a result, parishes with low business and property tax bases likely will have their libraries gutted. A recent article in Library Journal quoted Amanda Taylor, director of the Concordia Parish Library, describing the problem: "There's no longer a food stamp office; there's no longer a Social Security office. In our rural parish, a lot of our people have low literacy skills and very few computer skills. They come to the library because all of that has to be done online."
Jindal is fond of trumpeting his approach to education reform in Louisiana. Cutting library budgets in the state's poorest parishes shows that his real commitment is to his own political image. A $900,000 appropriation for rural libraries is a fraction of the state's $25.6 billion budget — and less than one-seventh of what Orleans voters pay for their own city library system. Though it may be a fraction of the state budget, the loss to small parishes is disproportionate and traumatic.
Some will suggest that small parishes follow New Orleans' lead and establish their own library millages. Most simply don't have the resources — and the state's poorest citizens are the people to whom libraries mean the most. They depend on public libraries for books, DVDs, computer access, homework, assistance with applying for jobs and aid — all the things that have the potential to give them a hand up in life.
If Jindal is unmoved by their plight, he should consider this: Last week, the business channel CNBC released its sixth annual ranking of "America's Top States For Business." Louisiana was ranked No. 42 — two spots ahead of where we ranked in 2010. The state improved in several categories, including cost of living and technology/innovation. When it came to quality of life, however, Louisiana was dead last. Both years. There's a message there for Jindal, if he cares to note it: People don't want to move to places without a library — and neither do businesses.
The New Orleans library system is healthy, despite Katrina's devastation, and the new branches are points of civic pride. But the local system isn't perfect. For example, the recently reopened eastern New Orleans branch still hasn't opened its computer lab. Brown told Gambit last week that the library system can't survive on millages alone, and the city's general fund doesn't have a budget line for libraries. Brown says the library's reserve funds, which are already being tapped, will last at least through 2013.
These and other fiscal issues will be addressed later this year, when Landrieu presents his 2013 operating budget to the City Council. But at least New Orleans doesn't have to depend on Bobby Jindal to keep its libraries open. Too bad the same can't be said for some other parishes.