In Defense of New Orleans Libraries

We live now in an era of uncertainty and loss; we find ourselves out of work, or struggling to make rent, or disconnected from friends and family. We are homeschooling children, or staring wistfully at maps of foreign countries. Our worlds have become painfully small. 

But hear this luck: we live in a city that believes in community. Just as our neighbors have helped babysit, or offered bread, or shared their chainsaw after a storm, our city too has built a framework of support. Our public library system is a shining net that holds us all. It connects us to each other, to the resources of the city, and to the possibilities of global knowledge. But on this December’s ballot, we’ll see a proposition to cut the funding of our libraries by forty percent. 

Let me tell you who would suffer. 

The parents who take their children to the library every week and emerge with a stack of picture books that just gets them through seven nights of bedtime reading. 

The children who escape their homes for an hour to hear a librarian recount tales of dragons. 

The students whose only access to online learning is through the libraries’ public internet. 

The job-seekers who depend on that internet to find openings, type up applications, submit resumes. 

The home-bound readers who get books delivered by mail, who devour mysteries and romances, who read poetry and Michelle Obama’s memoir. 

The citizens who rely on the libraries for tax assistance, personal finance classes, a civil legal clinic to help navigate evictions and foreclosures. 

But did you know your library also offers craft kits? Free streaming music? Bilingual storytime? Surprise “book bundles” based on any topic that interests you? Workshops for creative writing, bike maintenance, mental health? 

What other building in this city makes space for both our needs and our wishes? What other service protects our most vulnerable neighbors while delighting our youngest? 

I may seem like a strange library champion; I already have a thousand books in my house and frequently haunt Blue Cypress, Octavia, and Garden District bookstores. But I too need the library: for hard-to-find books, for printing services, for recommendations. I too delight in its wonders: a tea-tasting class, readings by local authors, the Culture Pass program that sends New Orleanians to museums (and the zoo!) for free. I’ve spent time in almost every branch, and have seen firsthand the energy, compassion, and brilliance of the librarians who are waiting to guide us. 

Some of these services, these branches, and these librarians would disappear after funding cuts. And where would that redirected money go? Toward an unspecified “economic development” fund outside of voter control. I’ve seen what the libraries have done for our city; I can’t imagine any gains that would make up for such deep losses. 

At its core, the library offers us knowledge, and knowledge is a ladder to security, to civic engagement, to any place you might dream. To cut funding to the public library system is to cut rungs off that ladder. On December 5, our city will ask us to define our priorities. Let us take this opportunity to defend a system that has so often sheltered us; let us proclaim pride in one of our city’s jewels; let us, in this era of disconnection, raise each other up. Vote no on proposition #2; save our libraries. 

Katy Simpson Smith is a novelist living in New Orleans.

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