Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Award-winning New Orleans “Book Lady” dreams of a bookmobile


Laurence Copel

Submitted by Laurence Copel, Lower Ninth Ward Street Library, New Orleans, LA

New Orleans has a problem.

Actually one could say it has many: one of the worst high school drop out rate in the nation, the highest level of crime per capita in the U.S., the highest number of people incarcerated in the world and … no bookmobile!

While these things may not seem related, those of us who promote library outreach know better. They know that research shows that children thrive when exposed to play and literacy at an early age, and that parents and caregivers of young children who themselves lack literacy skills feel powerless in giving their children and early start with books.

Which is why Laurence Copel, youth librarian, founder of the Lower Ninth Ward Street Library and the first-ever recipient of the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity, is looking to upgrade her bookmobile.

Ms. Copel moved to New Orleans in 2010 but her career in library outreach began in 2000 in New York City, where she worked for 10 years as a youth outreach librarian for the New York Public Library, and started early childhood literacy and teen outreach programs at the city’s Rikers Island jail.


The book trike

When she arrived in New Orleans, a city still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, she saw a critical need to provide books to the children of her community through library outreach services. She went to the management of the local public library, but was told there was no budget for outreach. So in 2011, while working part time as a school librarian and as a storyteller for the Prime Time Family reading time program, she founded the Lower Ninth Ward Street Library. In 2013 she bought a house, which she converted in part, into a children’s library. She also acquired a front loading tricycle, which is currently the only operating bookmobile in Orleans parish and she held the first annual krewe of Ex Libris book parade.

Since 2011 she has donated close to eight thousand books to the children of New Orleans.

In 2014, Ms. Copel’s efforts were recognized during the 2014 ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, where she received plaudits from the leaders of America’s oldest and largest library association.

However, there is still much to be done.  The tricycle, while adequate to serve most of the lower Ninth Ward, cannot travel over the bridges spanning the industrial canal.

She is currently looking for a vehicle, customized golf cart, scooter, horse and buggy or even a real motorized bookmobile to go to other parts of town where the need is still greater. Ms. Copel has been blessed with many generous book donations and seek to expand her outreach to other New Orleans neighborhoods that have high levels of poverty and crime, low levels of literacy, and little to no access to library services.

To learn more about the Lower Ninth Ward Street Library, and to donate to help make Ms. Copel’s bookmobile dream a reality, please visit the library’s website at http://www.lower9streetlibrary.org/ or it’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LowerNinthWardStreetLibrary.

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