The New Orleans Public Library System is in trouble.
Next year, the city has to find an additional $3 million just to keep the 13 current libraries open. That’s keep-the-lights-on money. Purchasing new books or investing in new library technologies are both out of the question under this scenario.
In 2011, the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the library, hired a consultant to evaluate the system’s performance. The findings were unfavorable, the report shared: the NOPL “is an underperforming organization that sorely lacks the leadership, clarity of purpose, and resources needed to provide even average library services. This state of affairs is a chronic condition, predating Hurricane Katrina.”
Ouch! I don’t know which hurt more, the “underperforming organization” comment or the “sorely lacks leadership” one.
A proposed millage to prevent our libraries from shuttering and keeping them up to date for the taxpayers of Orleans Parish seems like a small ask: 1-mill breaks down to 20 bucks in new property taxes for a $200,000 home and 6-mills, which would not only cover the budget shortfall but allow room for library development, at an additional $120 yearly for homeowners.
Voters may be able to take this issue to the poll as early as November if the New Orleans City Council approves a new tax millage referendum in June.
The library tax millage hasn’t increased in nearly 30 years. Personnel costs exceed the taxes raised to fund the system. Millions in reserves have already been used to cover this gap.
According to the American Library Association, 23 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from 2010–2011 to 2011–2012. For three years in a row, more than 40 percent of participating states have reported decreased public library funding.
Money aside, there also needs to be a plan in place to address the issues that were raised in the 2011 report, chiefly lack of leadership. Leadership will be able to make the tough decisions to improve the libraries and make sure resources are being allocated in the best areas. I wouldn’t support a new tax without seeing a full plan first.
About a month ago, I stopped into the Rosa Keller Library branch to drop off books I checked out earlier from the Nix branch. I knew they were overdue so instead of dropping them in the slot and keeping on with the rest of my day, I decided to take the extra 10 minutes to go inside to clear my debt.
Not only did I owe for the handful of books I checked out at Nix, I was in arrears for the years of 2012 and 2013. I hadn’t remembered keeping that Kurt Vonnegut short story collection or J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” or the other miscellaneous items past due.
It’s so easy not to pay your library fines. You’re not going to receive collection calls. The system doesn’t cut off your library card so you won’t be prevented from continuing to use any of the libraries services. You can continue to reserve private rooms. Check out DVDS. And CDs. The whole gamut of services is still allowed to you even if you owe.
I get why.
Many people still do not have computers in their homes or access to Wi-Fi or printing services either. The library offers all this and more. So to cut off those who need access to books and materials for school and work purposes could be considered cruel, especially in a city with a functional illiteracy rate of 44 percent.
According to the 2010–2011 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, nationally 16 percent of local libraries reported decreased operating hours. Those living in urban communities experienced the greatest impact. About one-third of urban libraries reported reductions in hours. The study revealed that for many public libraries, the choice was not whether or not to make service cuts but where to make the cuts.
Libraries are one of the first lessons in responsibility young people learn outside of the home. Very simply, you pick a book. You bring that book home and then your bring it back – preferably on time – and then you get to choose another.
Budget gaps, leadership and potential future elections aside; let’s start with paying our library fines, library users.
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.