Business Law

The New Orleans Public Library Five Years After Katrina: Progress and Perspective

Charles J. Lowry |

© New Orleans Public Library
Five years ago, when the winds of Hurricane Katrina sent the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Industrial Canal overtopping the levees, all areas and segments of New Orleans suffered. In a city where the educational and cultural milieu traditionally had several distinct layers, it is not surprising that the New Orleans Public Library suffered in various ways and in varying degrees. The immediate effect on the library was difficult enough. Of the thirteen branches, eight were rendered completely unusable and unable to reopen. Books were destroyed, facilities under water, surrounding communities scattered and devastated. More than 300,000 books, CDs and other items were destroyed, almost half of the total collection. In a city chronically short of money, the prospects were not good for the library. The tax base was so thoroughly undermined by the destruction that by the time the Loyola Avenue main library reopened, two months after Katrina, the city had already laid off 196 of the library’s 217 employees.

The news was not all terrible, by the way: the library’s archives and rare documents were held in below-ground storage, eighteen feet below the main library. Incredibly, the anti-flood works held, and the priceless collection was unharmed. These materials included slave ship manifests and logs, the official records of the City of New Orleans from 1769 onward and special music and Mardi Gras collections dealing with New Orleans history and culture.

It was a particularly joyless Halloween which saw the reopening of the library in 2005, just about two months after Katrina. Most of the population of New Orleans was still scattered. Nurses, firefighters and police officers were living in houseboats on the River. Restaurants, museums, movie theaters, hospitals, dental clinics, dry cleaners and retail outlets were closed. City services were spotty in some neighborhoods, non-existent in others, public utilities were being restored only block by block, and there was no local telephone service—not a big deal, you might say, until you stop to think of the impact on credit card acceptance. It was in such a city that the library reopened, with a small staff and a precious gift to New Orleans: wireless! Because of staffing, safety and logistical concerns, only the main library on Loyola Avenue was open, with very limited hours, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

During that first week, there were very few traditional research and borrowing users for the library. A few books were returned from borrowers who had been able to get back to New Orleans after the storm. By far the greatest and most practical use of the library was computer-related. Lines formed before the library opened and continued all day for the terminals in the computer room, about twenty computers available for e-mail and web surfing. The much-reduced professional staff was engaged largely in damage assessment and strategic planning, very much impeded by financial uncertainty.

How much progress has been made in five years? Much is evident, and much remains to be done. Employee count in five years has crept up to approximately 170, about 20% less than pre-Katrina levels, though for a city with a population about 35% smaller than in 2005. The general recovery in New Orleans has continued, slowly but demonstrably. Population has inched back up over 350,000, from a total of just under 500,000 before the storm (see the excellent summary in the New Orleans Master Plan. Thirteen branches are open again and serving their communities. Five temporary facilities exist, generally in trailers, at various locations throughout city neighborhoods. These five temporary locations will soon be served by new facilities, underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and expedited under the Design-Build program, which shortens the time period for planning, review and construction in post-Katrina New Orleans. Parenthetically, a simply search of the Gates Foundation site will offer impressive and welcome testimony of what the Foundation has done for the Gulf Coast in general and New Orleans in particular after Katrina.

Library funding proved to be difficult during the post-Katrina years. The library operating budget was just over $7,500,000 in 2004, pre-Katrina. The city spent $6,000,000 on the library in 2005, the year in which Katrina could almost be said to have knocked a third of the city’s year away. The worst year was 2006, where the library operating budget fell to under $2,500,000. The budget has incrementally been restored to pre-Katrina levels in the subsequent years, equaling the 2004 budget in 2009 and actually slightly surpassing it in 2010.

The library, under the imaginative and dedicated lead of chairman—and well-known New Orleans musician—Irvin Mayfield, has a twenty-year master plan. By 2030, the library hopes to have upgraded or rebuilt all the branches damaged by Katrina, at a cost of $200,000,000. The library board imagines an operating budget of approximately $16,000,000 per year, about twice the current operating budget. To do that will require a combination of public and private resources that extends beyond what has up to now ever been available. Still, the library board is hopeful. The outpouring of support from both foundations and individuals—including thousands of librarians—has convinced the board that its goals are possible and has energized the board to pursue them. And all of us can help, in various ways. Here is the link to the donation site that can make us all part of one of the greatest recovery projects in library history:

Let us close with two thoughts. One is from a Valerie Martin novel which well expresses the views of many who love New Orleans, especially poignant sentiments in the aftermath of Katrina. The other expresses the feelings at this time of year of all decent people:

* It is an odd sensation to recognize in oneself the need to be in a particular physical environment, when one longs for the home ground no matter how terrible the memories it holds, no matter how great the efforts to leave it behind. So I have left this city again and again and thought myself lucky to escape its allure… Where else could I find these hateful, humid, murderously hot afternoons when I know that the past was a series of great mistakes, the greatest being the inability to live anywhere besides this swamp?... I don't think I will leave the city again.
…[L]ife is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psychologically; we are tied to the rest of the country only by our own endeavor. The river from which we drink drains a continent; it has to be purified for days before we can stomach it. We smile to ourselves when people from more fashionable centers find us provincial, for if we are free of one thing, it's fashion. The future holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, now, to have our heads above water.
* Geaux Saints!

Chuck Lowry is a sales representative for Fastcase and a long-time SLA member. Even when he is daydreaming in his beloved New Orleans, he can be reached at

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