April 19, 2018

Politician of the Year 2008: Lifting Louisiana

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu makes libraries a priority, increasing state aid, drawing outside support, and boosting the state library

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 09/15/2008

“What we found out from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, what we relearned—something we had forgotten by accident—is how important libraries are,” says Mitchell J. (Mitch) Landrieu. Now in his second term as lieutenant governor of Louisiana, Landrieu oversees the Office of the State Library along with the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. The New Orleans native, son of former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu and brother of Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, is part of a dynasty of local Democrats, and he has put his political muscle behind libraries.

Louisiana librarians in droves told us that such an impressive library champion should be the LJ 2008 Politician of the Year. After we read their letters, we agreed that Mitch Landrieu deserves the award for his valuable work to rebuild Louisiana libraries.

Library enthusiast

Landrieu proved he was the right choice when we got him on the phone. “We’re going back to the drawing boards now, and as we rebuild from the ground up, rebuild the schools, rebuild the hospitals, rebuild the neighborhoods,” Landrieu tells us, “libraries have to be an integral part of it because, let us remind you, of what they were right after Katrina in 2005.

“People were thrown out of their homes. They had nowhere to go, but there was a repository, the library, and people went there to get information…to access the Internet,” he says. “It was not just a day in the park, or an afternoon after school, it [was] a life-threatening situation. That is how important having access to that particular piece of the community was. When you rebuild the empty trailer parks, the most important thing there is the library…not only as a place to go to relax but as a lifeline to information, a place of refuge where you go to link back to the most essential things in your life…. Libraries are where you get that in wartime, in responding to emergencies. In peacetime, you need them to keep you educated, to know the things that will keep you connected to the rest of the world.

“People say that is a brilliant idea and ask where it came from,” Landrieu explains. “But it wasn’t brilliant at all; it came from necessity.”

New support

The experience convinced the lieutenant governor to push hard for more direct state aid to libraries. Thanks to Landrieu’s advocacy, the legislature doubled state aid in FY07/08, to a new high of $3 million.

For example, in the rural, two-parish Audubon Regional Library, the boost allowed the system to be open another day every week and increase its book budget by 25 percent. Library director Mary Bennett Lindsey praises Landrieu for setting the goals and making the case for libraries to a legislature overwhelmed with demands to fund vital services.

Both Audubon and the West Feliciana Parish Library used some of the money for summer reading programs to augment efforts by local schools to improve reading skills of rural children. “It is so evident…that Lt. Gov. Landrieu believes in libraries and the powerful difference they can make in a life,” comments Linda Fox, West Feliciana’s director.

In New Orleans, where the library system lost eight of its branches and suffered the greatest losses from Katrina, Irvin Mayfield, chair of the New Orleans Public Library Board, says of Landrieu, “When we have called upon him, he has been there.”

And just this year, when new governor Bobby Jindal proposed a budget freeze that would have eliminated 12 positions in the state library, Landrieu “worked hard to get that stopped,” says State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton.

Seeking innovation

Not one to just throw money at problems, Landrieu invoked a new “Budgeting for Outcomes” process based on his reading of David Osborne’s Laboratories of Democracy (Harvard Business Sch.). Hamilton says the process earned new funds for the state library and allowed it to allocate money to such higher priorities as early literacy, public library staff training, and the implementation of WebFeat, a federated search engine for Louisiana’s statewide databases.

The process challenged the state library to compete with other agencies under Landrieu’s supervision. Hamilton had to convince Landrieu and the legislature that state aid to libraries was critical to his vision of making “Louisiana a place where people’s lives and livelihoods can be enhanced through access to knowledge.”

“That was an outcome we wanted,” says Landrieu, “but the challenge was that departments had to stop doing some things to save money for things that contributed to the outcomes we wanted. People closely allied to the outcomes we wanted got more money, those who weren’t got less. Some actually quit. We decided to have rich programs that were well funded, programs we expect will achieve a lot.”

Rebuilding efforts

Landrieu visibly and vocally supported the concept of the Gulf Coast Libraries Project (GCLP), helping to convince the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to donate $12.2 million to rebuild libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi. Administered by the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET), GCLP has already set up some 21 temporary libraries or bookmobiles, funded staff and operations, and issued grants to plan rebuilding in damaged library systems. The program is funded to continue for two more years.

“The lieutenant governor’s high profile…brings extra attention, well beyond the library community, to the needs that libraries address within these recovering communities,” observes Kate Nevins, executive director of SOLINET. She adds that Landrieu “continues to support the inclusion of rebuilding permanent library facilities in each community’s master plan for recovery.”

Landrieu is equally proud of his Cultural Economy Initiative, an effort to move beyond enjoying art, music, historic preservation, and publishing to consider how to generate revenues from them. “You treat the cultural economy the same way you treat the oil and gas industries,” says Landrieu. “This is about job creation; it is not just about the quality of life by enjoying the products but the quality of life by creating them. Libraries are an integral part of that.”

One example of Landrieu’s cultural economy approach is the annual Louisiana Book Festival, which has grown in attendance from 5000 to 16,000 and earned the American Library Association John Cotton Dana Award and the 2007 Boorstin Center for the Book Award.

It is obvious why we selected Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu as LJ‘s 2008 Politician of the Year—from specific initiatives and funding to the use of his influence, position, and high profile, he gives libraries tremendous importance and visibility in Louisiana and the nation. Also, he was quick to recognize that the message of libraries had been lost for a time. As Landrieu puts it, “From the hurricanes we learned something that we should have known already. We learned how important libraries are to everything that we do.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ