New Orleans’s Nora Navra Library Reopens

New Orleans Public Library’s (NOPL) Nora Navra Library celebrated its grand reopening in the city’s 7th Ward neighborhood on Friday, August 24 and Saturday, August 25. The completion of the new 7,800 square foot building marks the reopening of all six NOPL branches that were destroyed in the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans Public Library’s (NOPL) Nora Navra Library will celebrate its grand reopening in the city’s 7th Ward neighborhood on Friday, August 24 and Saturday, August 25. The completion of the new 7,800 square foot building marks the reopening of all six NOPL branches that were destroyed in the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The two day community event will be free and open to the public. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell will kicked off the celebration, which will feature guest speakers including City Librarian Charles Brown, councilmember Jarrod Brossett, and other city and state officials. The Free Agent Brass Band will lead a parade through the library with students from nearby preschools, community members, and library staff. Library employees will give tours and lead programs. Saturday’s lineup includes story time, teen crafts, a bike workshop, a magic show, and free snoballs.

The new energy-efficient, Americans with Disabilities (ADA)–compliant facility, designed by Manning Architects, cost more than $3,700,000 and was funded by a Community Development Block Grant, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and municipal bonds. It includes dedicated adult, teen, and children’s sections; 28 computer workstations; a community meeting room; and staff offices; as well as space for a collection of more than 16,500 items.

POST-KATRINA RECOVERY

The Nora Navra Library, originally known as Branch Nine, opened in temporary quarters in 1946—first in the Valena C. Jones Elementary School and then in two conjoined surplus army huts. Also that year, Nora Navra, “an unmarried homemaker of Jewish ancestry” and loyal patron, according to the library’s history page, died and left most of her estate to NOPL. The library board authorized a portion of that bequest to build a permanent location for the branch, and the newly named Nora Navra Memorial Branch opened at 1902 St. Bernard Avenue in 1954, in the city’s largely African American 7th Ward.

"Many of the city's leading African American figures have rolled through the Nora Navra Library during the course of its history,” Brown told LJ. “It's been a true cultural and educational institution.”

The building served the community for more than 50 years, until flooding brought on by Hurricane Katrina damaged all of the system’s 12 branches—six of them beyond repair.

In 2005, as New Orleans began its post-Katrina recovery, the American Library Association (ALA) spearheaded a national effort to provide relief and assistance to NOPL, eventually raising some $500,000 toward all the region’s libraries. ALA also set up an “Adopt-a-Library” program, enabling 300 libraries from outside the Gulf region to give direct support where needed.

When ALA decided to hold its Annual meeting in New Orleans in 2006, it was the first major conference to return to the city since Katrina, and a strong vote of confidence for both the city and its libraries. In addition to providing some welcome revenue, ALA mobilized its Libraries Build Communities project, and along with the Black Caucus of ALA (BCALA) and ALA’s Committee on Diversity, organized volunteers to help clean damaged library buildings and shelve donated books in the repaired facilities. In a 2006 article for LJ, former NOPL branch manager Ronald Gauthier described cleaning out the Nora Navra branch, encountering “over eight months’ of encapsulated grime and filth, utter destruction, and ubiquitous mold.”

Library Journal, working with NOPL and architect Jeffrey Scherer of Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd., helped raise funds for and coordinate the eventual renovation and reopening of the Alvar Street Branch.

Five of the damaged facilities—the Rosa F. Keller, Norman Mayer, Robert E. Smith, East New Orleans Regional, and Algiers Regional libraries—reopened in 2012. But Nora Navra remained closed as NOPL’s fortunes flagged along with the national economy.

Even as city finances picked up, rebuilding Nora Navra was delayed as NOPL worked to confirm a site. A location adjacent to the original building was considered, but the library was not able to acquire the property.

“The original post-Katrina plan was to relocate the library to another location,” said Vince Smith, director of capital projects administration for the city of New Orleans, in a statement. “The construction of the new library on the existing site was a result of a collaborative effort with the community to honor and continue the history and importance of this facility in its original location. The contemporary, open design makes the library a beacon of light in both form and function and will serve as a community anchor for residents of the 7th Ward and beyond.”

Financial concerns about operations continued to be an issue as well. “Although there were city, state, and federal funds available to construct the building,” Brown told LJ, “it wasn't until after the passage of the supplemental millage in 2015 that we were sure that we had enough funding to open and operate the facility.”

That year, a property tax increase passed by New Orleans voters boosted funding for the library system and provided the money needed to rebuild Nora Navra. The City Planning Commission voted 5–0 in favor of a conditional-use permit for a new branch, and City Council approved the plan as well. The old building was demolished in early 2017, and ground was broken for new construction that March.

Nora Navra held a soft opening in summer 2018, and despite a lack of parking—the most common complaint—responses to the new neighborhood library have been enthusiastic.

“I think this is a capstone in terms of the restoration and demonstrated resilience of both the city of New Orleans and its public library system,” Brown said. “This is a major event for the entire community. One of its true cultural institutions is now back and whole.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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