Truth, Technology, and Fun: New Orleans’s Public Libraries


“Truth isn’t truth.” – “America’s Mayor” Rudolph William Louis Giuliani

I don’t reflect on it too often, but I suppose I have been an introvert all my life. It wasn’t intentional. I just needed silence to think, and I like to think a lot. It’s what led me to be the only child sitting in the Herrin (Illinois) Public Library for hours on end reading one book after another, and like Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes” thinking deep thoughts until it grew dark; until the library closed and the staff would catch me hiding happily in a corner and send me home.

As I grew older, I still loved reading, until I graduated college, when almost everything I consumed was connected to some kind of work I was doing or a job I was trying to acquire. I read books on being a film grip on movie sets, books on creating resumes and many more books on making books. But for the most part, I regressed into Facebook and daily news sites while my library usage fell by the wayside. In many ways, I was fortunate that no matter my economic circumstances, I could still get whatever educational materials I needed online.

I wasn’t just fortunate to have access to the digital world, I was lucky because I had a mother who, having been a reference librarian, taught me the value of research and the process of sifting fact from fiction. Many people haven’t learned that skill, or do not have the luxury of access in their homes.  

My interest in libraries dimmed with time. They were a place for me to grab some books and return them  (often with steep fines). With Netflix, Spotify and Amazon, especially its Kindle Unlimited service available to me, libraries seemed to be obsolete. And like any self-centered person, I assumed if they were obsolete for me, they would soon be obsolete for everyone else as well. The reality is otherwise, and for me, quite surprising.

In the small town in Central Louisiana in which I grew up, every time the library needed to raise funds, usually through a tax costing literally a penny or less, the resistance to it was daunting.  The “Haves,” according to my reference librarian mother, never seemed to understand why it was essential to provide a level playing field for the “Have-Nots,” and that is one of the things that libraries can and should do in the community. It’s all about access and resources. Ideally, a rising tide lifts all boats.

However, in New Orleans the attitude towards the necessity of libraries is different. In May of 2015, over seventy percent of the city’s voters voted to increase funding for our public library system, raising the budget from three million to over eight million dollars a year. That boost in funds seems to demonstrate that New Orleanians understand the value of a good library system. And for my money, we have one.

In the “post-fact era,” where “truth isn’t truth,” where we have “alternative facts,” the library is not only not obsolete, it is more necessary than ever before. And that’s for many reasons, not all of which I have the room to list. Here are just a few terrific programs New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) offers:

  1. FOOD. Some libraries are actually a food resource now. For people interested in growing their own food, whether folks of limited means or those who simply want a healthier lifestyle of home-grown fruits and vegetables, New Orleans community gardens flourish wherever they can get a hold.

The New Orleans Public Library, besides offering books on agriculture, offers free seeds to grow your own food at the Cita Dennis Hubbell branch at 725 Pelican Avenue, located in Algiers Point. I spoke to Seale Paterson, the library’s manager, whose enthusiasm for the seed program is contagious.

“We have the seeds here in a really cute card catalog. People can just come in and get what they want; you don’t need a library card. You can take what you need.”

“We also have a very small community garden here at the library. We started it because I had read some findings about how kids in New Orleans couldn’t really recognize fresh vegetables. Their only exposure to them in lower-income families was in cans or frozen chopped-up bits.”

“The first successful planting we had, we had grown basil, and that was the first thing to be ready. I said, ‘Here, come try what you planted, you made food! And we tore a leaf off and handed it to one kid, and he looked at us and he’s like, ‘I’m not going to eat something that came out of the dirt.’ So we had a little talk about that,” she laughs.

And who gets to eat the food from the garden and the pick-up? “Whoever wants it,” answers Ms. Paterson. “When the parents come in and see something growing and the kids are like, ‘I grew this eggplant!’ it’s great. They cut what they want. That’s been one of our most successful things.”

The Mid-City Branch at 4140 Canal Street, also has a seed library. Brian Morin, Mid-City Librarian says, “The seed library at the Mid-City branch specializes in hard-to-find heirloom vegetable, herbs, and flowers. Presently we have nearly 400 varieties in our collection and are currently undergoing a large restock for fall planting. Our collection is geared more towards the urban gardener with the amount of seeds in each packet appropriate to smaller planting areas.”

Heirloom seeds, I learned, can be important because they are adapted to local growing conditions. Unlike GMO seeds, heirloom seed can also be harvested, dried, and stored, so that one can replant the following season, cutting down on future costs.

  1. TRAINING. Nearly all libraries carry various educational and testing manuals, and reference services are built on the kind of obscure books only those professionally trained people can understand. NOPL offers something extra: Lynda.com

Lynda.com, a LinkedIn service which is owned by Microsoft, is one of the web’s most prized paywall sites for increasing your education. It’s described as “A leading online learning platform that helps anyone learn business, software, technology and creative skills to achieve personal and professional goals. Library members have access to the Lynda.com video library of engaging, top-quality courses taught by recognized industry experts.”

It’s not just another streaming video site like YouTube. The experts are real and the knowledge is truly worthwhile. According to Lynda.com, the organizations that use its vast sources include Adobe, Full Sail University, and the United States Office of Government Ethics, which is quite a diverse group of organizations.  The courses include project files to help you learn a variety of tasks, including developing software in Unity—what many modern video and computer games are made in—and programming in C#.

I wanted to join Lynda.com for years, but with all my other expenses, it always seemed to be just out of reach. At one point, it cost thirty-five dollars a month. Now, it’s twenty-nine, but with my library card, it’s free. Of all the services and resources, this truly blew me away. In front of me, I’m staring at a course on Time Management Fundamentals under their business skills section. After that, I’ll probably look up some video courses on web design—I could really use the help.

Matthew Bowers, New Orleans Library’s Manager of Collection Development, had more to share with me about other online services: “Patrons can also research their ancestry with HeritageQuest Online, look up business information from ReferenceUSA, check stock performance on Morningstar Online, or find their new favorite book with NoveList. We are hoping to add new resources soon, including the world-renowned language-learning tool, Rosetta Stone.”

Oh, and for those who are out of a job, Lynda.com offers a course on Acing Your Interview. Which brings me to…

Bring Your Résumé  Night. This event takes place across the various library branches throughout New Orleans as part of their Workforce Development Series. Jessica Rareshide, a Certified Personnel Consultant from Rare Insight, LLC, will review your resume and answer any questions you may have about how to improve it. Services like that can cost hundreds of dollars.   

Jessica Rarshide tells me, “Last week a gentleman said that for the first time he felt hopeful that he would be able to get the job that he wanted.”

She added, “I want to talk about how we’re going to make ourselves happier, what kind of things can we do to make that happen, and most of that starts with community. You’ve got to have the support. Where can you get support? At the library.” She clearly loves helping people and making a difference.

  1. FUN. I recently had to renew my Amazon Kindle Unlimited membership in order to get one book. I have been a big fan of the young adult fiction “Septimus Heap” series for years, and I wanted to read the next book in the new saga, “TodHunter Moon, Book One: PathFinder” by Agnes Sage. If I had known about how great the New Orleans Public Library’s online video, magazine, comic, audio and eBook services were, I would have found it at their Overdrive service, in both eBook and audio. While reading “Todhunter Moon,” I streamed Nicki Minaj’s new album Queen on another streaming service they have called Hoopla. Oh, and in case you were wondering, they have “The Meg” as an audiobook, so if you’ve ever wanted to listen to a ten-hour audiobook about a megalodon shark killing people, they have you covered.

Besides Hoopla and Overdrive, NOPL has Flipster, which offers plenty of modern recent magazines like Popular Mechanics, and Consumer Reports, along with an adult coloring book you can download and print out—please don’t try coloring on your screen. They also have a video-streaming service called Kanopy, that offers some really high-quality films, including the modern masterpiece, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and Freegal, a music streaming site.

For more fun and education, the library has teamed up with the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to offer free museum passes. But it also provides “museum entry to special Ogden programs such as Ogden After Hours, Art for Art’s Sake, etc. as well as access to nearly 700 museums throughout the U.S. and Canada through the North American Reciprocal Museum Program.”

  1. TRUTH. In an era of half-truths, few people willingly do more to fight fact-less fear mongering than librarians. Trained in Library Science, there are few people better at research than reference librarians. According to American Libraries Magazine, “The news-savvy consumer is able to distinguish fact from opinion and to discern the hallmarks of evasive language and half-truths. But growing evidence suggests that these skills are becoming rarer.”

In the end, everything comes round to facts and fiction. Librarians will help you find fictional books, but the right librarians will help you find the facts.

In an era of fakery and falsehoods, librarians have built goodwill, truth, and integrity, against a wall of ignorance and misinformation. If you haven’t visited your local library, now is as good a time as ever was. Oh, and while you’re there, show your librarian some love. You’re welcome, Mom.

“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” – Winston Churchill

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