Libraries Damaged, Librarians Respond, After Hurricane's Fury

By Andrew Albanese, Lynn Blumenstein, Norman Oder, & Michael Rogers

Temporary cards, shelter services provided to Katrina evacuees; will 2006 ALA conference move from New Orleans?

As the flood waters rose in the coastal sections of storm-tossed Louisiana and neighboring states in early September, librarians also rose to meet the needs of their own patrons and evacuees. Though many people were missing and buildings destroyed following the destructive wrath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton told LJ that library staffers had mobilized quickly to keep services running.

"People in Louisiana are unusually generous. Libraries stayed open over the Labor Day weekend, staff are driving vans back and forth to shelters, and they're issuing temporary library cards so refugees can borrow books and use computers to contact relatives via email," she said. The state library mounted information on its web site for all those without phone service and established a relief fund.

Elsewhere around the state, Shreve Memorial Library, Shreveport, welcomed thousands of hurricane evacuees who relocated to that northern city, offering temporary cards and access to free printing. The library solicited monetary donations plus needed items such as school supplies. At the evacuee sites, library staffers brought books and held story time programs. The library has several staff vacancies, at all levels, and recruited from among the evacuees.

In Baton Rouge, now the largest city in the state, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library provided gift books for children and adults at shelters, offered adults free library cards, and provided contact information for local service organizations. The library also set up a housing information exchange.

"If you came to our branches, you'd see all the victims of the hurricane," said library director Lydia Acosta. "On September 1, we opened up and went on the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] web site, downloaded the forms, and made multiple copies." She said library staffers were helping evacuees complete job applications and get on bulletin boards for missing persons. "We've set aside our circulation rules," Acosta added. "If you're here, we'll treat you as a resident for the next 12 months."

In Lafayette, library director Sona J. Dombourian said, "The Cajundome was morphed into a refugee center, and our staff provided library outreach. We have configured a computer center there. We are also providing information and books to those evacuees."

Outside Louisiana

Nearby states shared Louisiana's woes. In Mobile, AL, little was initially known about the fate of library staffers, but the library's main branch lost its roof. Fortunately, most of the collection previously had been moved to another location as the building underwent renovation. Alabama State Library Service director Rebecca Mitchell reported that some branches in Mobilepossiblywere even worse off. The Bayou La Batre library, a 1933 log cabin, remained intact, but its contents were lost. Some libraries brought PCs to locations housing evacuees, and one library even hosted a luncheon for them.

The Mississippi State Library Commission (SLC), Jackson, had no power and was closed until September 6. Since the SLC serves as the Internet service provider for all libraries in the state, said State Librarian Sharman Smith, libraries lost service for nine days. Smith said the good news is that, "as far as we know," no library staffers had lost their lives, though many had lost their homes.

Smith said three libraries were destroyed: the Long Beach Public Library as well as the Waveland and Purlington school libraries, both part of the Hancock County Library System in Bay Saint Louis. At the Harrison County Library System, Gulfport, the Gulfport facility is a shell, said Smith. Pascagoula Library, part of Jackson-George Regional Library System, Pascagoula, had its roof torn off.

In Texas, Harris County Public Library (HCPL) and Houston Public Library coordinated services for the 12,000 people relocated to the Astrodome. In Tennessee, Lillian Johnson, public relations officer for the Memphis Public Library and Information Center told LJ that a task force was established to help the thousands of evacuees who received visitors' cards for library service; PCs were set aside solely for filling out applications for FEMA aid.

Librarians looking for safety

At press time in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, much was unknown, but LJ was able to contact a few librarian evacuees. "I arrived in this country as a child refugee and a victim of the Vietnam War 30 years ago," Kim Uyen Tran, New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), Periodicals, Arts & Recreation Division head, said. "Jump to August 27, 2005, I'm an adult and again a refugee. Nothing could be more unstable and scary." Tran, her husband, and two cats made a slow trip north, ultimately settling in Harrisonburg, VA.

Caitlin Cooper of NOPL's Martin Luther King branch told LJ that she and her cats moved from shelter to shelter, being turned out because of plumbing problems. The trip to safety was fraught with gridlocked roads and downed power lines.

Academic displacement

Universities in New Orleans have already cancelled classes for the entire fall semester, and colleges and universities elsewhere accommodated displaced students and academics. Meanwhile, the cleanup on campus has begun - and Tulane University may have been spared Katrina's worst. On a message posted to Yale University's Liblicense-l electronic discussion list, Tulane dean of libraries Lance Query reported that he had received word that the main library at Tulane "seems to be okay," or at least has "only minimal damage." The library's offsite storage facility reportedly took on about a foot of water - bad news but far better than most of the city fared.

ALA annual a washout?

Amid sympathetic thoughts, some librarians naturally began wondering whether the next annual American Library Association (ALA) conference, scheduled for June 22 - 28, 2006 in New Orleans, may have to be relocated. ALA president Michael Gorman released a statement acknowledging that "ALA is monitoring the situation in New Orleans as it relates to planning for the ALA annual conference."

How to help

Those looking for ways to help can access an extensive list of links compiled by librarian Rochelle Hartman. Send checks to the Louisiana Library Foundation, PO Box 2583, Baton Rouge, LA 70821. A note can direct money to a specific library.

Additionally, Friends of Libraries USA (FOLUSA) is gearing up to collect books for those in shelters. In the past, said FOLUSA director Sally Reed, the organization required verification from any Friends group or library requesting assistance that it had suffered damage, but FOLUSA is waiving that requirement entirely for Katrina.

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