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New Orleans public libraries are experiencing a renaissance

16th July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Phillip Manuel
Contributing Writer

In case you’re wondering how the city of New Orleans is doing six and a half years after Hurricane Katrina opened 53 breaches in the flood walls and let the water in…well, judging from what’s going on with the public library system, I’d say she’s doing just fine. “New Orleans is alive and well,” says Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Fresh off the opening of not one but five new public libraries, the mayor is feeling pretty good about the city. But like most of the Big Easy’s recovery sagas, getting to this point has been a long and arduous ordeal for the libraries.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed eight of the 12 branch libraries and their contents. Then began the long haul to bring them back. But, the libraries would have to stand in line. There were more pressing priorities, like rebuilding schools, infrastructure repairs, the ongoing restoration of basics services, getting businesses operational, not to mention trying to get displaced residents home. For the time being, the eight branches would find homes in temporary facilities. It was tough times for folks who loved libraries.

Bookworm Power

New Orleans public libraries were not without their advocates. The Library Foundation, headed by Grammy award-winning musician, Irvin Mayfield would be instrumental in turning the page in the library’s favor. His celebrity, not to mention a penchant for raising money would focus attention on the plight of the library. It wasn’t long before the resident group, “Friends of the Library” got involved. “Friends” began an advocacy/membership movement to drum up support and bring the libraries back. All of this activity created a synergy, but the library lovers weren’t through yet. The Library Foundation embarked upon a marketing campaign to rebrand the library as the “New In Place: Imagine That.” With that slogan plastered on billboards, and a spate of radio commercials featuring local university presidents recalling their first experience with the public library, it was full steam ahead.

The Renaissance

The branches that survived—in the mostly uptown area—were up and running as soon as possible. It would be 2008 before plans began in earnest to build new libraries. The Foundation enlisted the aid of a local public relations and marketing firm to manage community outreach. After a series of meetings, and with the community’s blessing, architects went to work and it wasn’t long before pilings hit the dirt. For the last three and a half years work has continued unabated leading up to this spring, when over a two-month period, five new libraries opened. Each new branch was designed to represent the qualities, even peculiarities of its neighborhood. And each new library would have its own theme—the “music and art” branch or the “science and technology” branch. At the end of the day each new branch would be unique.

A New Day for the Library

The Rosa Keller Library and Community Center opened first, on March 16. This was followed by Norman Mayer on March 20, the Robert E. Smith opening on March 22, and the New Orleans East Regional branch opening on April 12th. The final opening was the Algiers Branch on July 11. Landrieu points to the revival of the public library system as just another example of the new attitude New Orleans has. “From the beginning I’ve said, one voice, one fight, one city.” Landrieu says the catchy phrase is not just campaign fodder. He believes New Orleanians have taken his message to heart, and he points to the five library openings as proof.

“Do we still have differences? Of course, but the spirit of cooperation that has developed since Hurricane Katrina leads to the progress you’re seeing,” he said. Mayfield agrees. “I think everyone sees the writing on the wall. We have an opportunity to do a very good thing with our libraries. We could dream and envision a new system, with new facilities and a whole different take on what our public libraries could be.”

That’s music to the ears of new Library Director, Charles Brown. Brown comes to New Orleans from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was director of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Library. “What an exciting time for the library and for this city,” he said. Brown barely had time to meet his staff before he had to prepare for media briefings and grand openings. He says that in spite of the current pace he eventually plans to get back to mapping out his strategy for the role he wants libraries to play, including that of community center. “Libraries should be at the very center of a community life and seen as centers for life-long learning,” he said.

Combined, the five new branches have a price tag of almost $34 million. The Algiers branch, the largest branch, also had the biggest price tag, coming in at around $9.2 million. The Robert E. Smith branch had the smallest budget at $4.5 million. Lee Ledbetter and Associates designed the Mayer and Smith branches. Gould Evans Architects did the New Orleans East and Algiers branches, and Eskew+Du­mez+Ripple took on combining the old and the new at Rosa Keller. Gibbs Construction built all but the Keller branch, which was built by Gootee Construction, Inc. All five new branches are equipped with special community spaces for residents. Some have youth activity rooms, most have technology centers and computer labs. The Keller Branch even has its own café.

Charles Brown has finally met his staff, but things aren’t slowing down much. As for Mayor Landrieu, the slate of grand openings are all in a day’s work for a man on a mission, someone whose feet hit the floor at 5:30 a.m, puts in a few miles jogging and then works for 14 hours. But Landrieu says that’s what it’s going to take to bring New Orleans back, “not like she was before, but even better.”

This article was originally published in the July 16, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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