LJ Report "New Orleans, ALA 2006": Restoration Moves

ALA's gutsy decision to stick with New Orleans brought a spotlight to the struggling city and some help for needy libraries The 2006 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans will long symbolize the significance of libraries and librarians to a convention city—and to the community around it. Forget the numbers—the relatively light attendance, only 16,964, compared to 19,575 in Orlando in 2004 and 27,800 in Chicago in 2005. As the first major convention in the Crescent City since the ravages of Hurricane Katrina ten months earlier, the conference served as a sign of the city's emergence back toward—but hardly near—normalcy. Local officials and those in the hospitality industry kept their fingers crossed, the National Guard made themselves known, and the local news hummed with stories about revitalization via librarians. “And the Librarians Shall Lead Them,” read the headline on a commentary by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who—like a lot of visitors—confessed to “my own verklempt moments” over the conference weekend.

An infusion of energy and cash

For ALA, which made the gutsy and not completely popular decision last fall to stick with New Orleans, it was a vindication of sorts and a chance to spotlight the library community's commitment to its own. The contributions were many, yet, like the convention's $20 million infusion to New Orleans economy, only a start. ALA and others in the library community announced an array of grants. Library Journal spearheaded the pro bono restoration and makeover of the New Orleans Public Library's (NOPL) Alvar Street Branch with Meyer, Scherer, & Rockcastle, Ltd., NOPL, and Baker & Taylor (see p. 45). ALA, Highsmith, and Bretford revamped NOPL's Children's Resource Center. ALA's Hurricane Library Relief Fund hit the $370,000 mark. The H.W. Wilson Foundation announced a $100,000 gift to NOPL. Springer Science+Business Media donated ebooks valued at $1 million to seven of the city's universities. Thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Southeastern Library Network has $896,000 to help academic libraries recovering from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And on the Friday and Tuesday of the conference weekend, nearly 900 yellow-shirted conferencegoers participated in some 22 volunteer projects, helping sort books, do yard work, and otherwise aid libraries and other community agencies. “You all stood firm and came when we needed you most,” declared Councilman James Carter at the Alvar opening. “We appreciate you with our heart and our soul.” Perhaps most significant, on the eve of the conference, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) announced major grants to support Gulf Coast public libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Gates Foundation's $12.2 million grant to the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) will help support up to 22 temporary facilities provide residents with access to books and computer and Internet services, support planning for new services, and pay for new computers when public libraries are rebuilt. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund administered by the Americans for Libraries Council will provide $5 million to reconstruct libraries. The IMLS will contribute another $500,000 to the Gates Foundation's effort to help staff the temporary facilities. In Louisiana, 107 public library buildings were initially reported destroyed or damaged, and 40 were closed at the time of the announcement. In Mississippi, 34 public libraries were indefinitely or temporarily closed, with eight remaining closed.

Shoulder to shoulder

“One of the most amazing aspects of this conference has been the opportunity to spend time working shoulder to shoulder with our library colleagues and others…to ensure our public, school, and academic libraries are restored to the people of New Orleans,” said incoming ALA president Leslie Burger. “I also have never felt so welcomed to a city.” It all made a dent in a city and region still struggling at the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season. Even part of the Morial Convention Center—once a hellish, impromptu shelter for hurricane evacuees—remained closed during the conference. Weeks before, the murder of five teens in the Central City ghetto not far from the business district led local officials to call for the National Guard. Conference attendees saw the French Quarter well patrolled by city cops and state troopers, but those venturing farther afield—to the city's devastated or recovering neighborhoods—saw the guards in armored personnel carriers, an eerie gloss on the Big Easy. Service at local restaurants and hotels could be spotty, given the paucity of veteran staffers; some restaurants had trailers in their parking lots to house kitchen workers who otherwise couldn't find places in the tight housing market. Conferencegoers groused about too few direct flights and a balky airport shuttle service, but the basic level of food, music, and hospitality in New Orleans remained reliably high, and the city had not lost its famed joie de vivre. An exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art features a Katrina Deli (limited menu) with offerings such as Oysters Hepatitis-B ienville, Crawfish Evacuee, Furniture Upside Down Cake, and Chicken à la FEMA (will be delivered to your table in six to eight weeks).

ALA opening

The role of libraries in the aftermath of the hurricanes was not forgotten. Outgoing ALA president Michael Gorman began the Opening General Session with a video review of library coverage over the past year—the salvaging of the Salinas Public Library, the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the ravages of Katrina and Rita. Gorman asked the audience to stand in a moment of silence for those lost in the aftermath of the hurricanes. “Libraries brought a sense of normalcy” to those affected, he said, and the national media picked up on the important role libraries played. Gorman symbolically distributed (with giant checks) another $100,000 to Louisiana libraries from ALA's relief fund, plus $50,000 for Mississippi. Grateful New Orleans notables were on hand to thank librarians. Via videotape, musician Wynton Marsalis praised librarians, whom he said are rarely recognized or adequately honored. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin hailed libraries as “center points for our citizens in the diaspora” following the storms. State lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu—a rival to Nagin in the recent mayoral election—added some levity, asking visitors not to forget “paying your taxes at Harrah's Casino.”

Post-Katrina echoes

It was hard at some points to distinguish ALA business from the phenomenon of the conference itself. Indeed, the association's Executive Board agreed to consider instituting service days at future ALA conferences; numerous programs touched on post-hurricane restoration issues; and several authors presented books about Katrina or the city itself. Besides the big houses issuing their Katrina books, there were a number of enterprising small publishers with their own offerings. For young adult readers ages ten to 14, Compass Point Books had Hurricane Katrina: Aftermath of Disaster, part of its “Snapshots in History” series. The publisher will donate proceeds to ten affected school libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi. North Castle Books handed out copies of Requiem for New Orleans, a collection of poems by Mike Sharpe, founder and president of M.E. Sharpe. Times-Picayune columnist Rose was signing copies of his self-published 1 Dead in Attic, a collection of his columns in response to the disaster. Since he published the book early this year, Rose said he had sold about 40,000 copies, mainly through word of mouth and on the Internet. Portions of the proceeds will go to New Orleans foundations supporting artists and musicians.

Post-Katrina stories

At a panel on post-Katrina effects, Lance Query, director of the Tulane University library, talked of Tulane's struggle to recover. “We didn't get guidelines [from FEMA] until three weeks ago,” he said, noting that the university had fronted the cost of recovering the waterlogged collection and damaged library facilities. He described the discussions he had with the library's previously contracted recovery company, whose representative told him, “I think it's time for your people to talk with our people.” Query's response: “I am my people.” “We're a much better citizen,” he said, pointing out how, in the process of striking deals with vendors, Tulane required them to offer services to local schools. Beyond that, “We are the library for Dillard University,” a historically black institution that was devastated by Katrina and almost moved to Atlanta. Sharman Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission, advised listeners to “plan for the absolute worst.” Libraries need to keep basic things like people's home addresses on file; in some cases, she said, a library director had to drive to deliver paychecks physically. She provoked attendees to think about how to operate in a cash-only society. She said an informal process developed in the wake of the hurricane would become formal; the commission will act as a third-party contact point for dispersed libraries and librarians. She said the commission also now has new links with agencies such as the Arts Commission and Archives & History. As for the funds needed for recovery, “It happens extraordinarily slower than you think it should,” she said. Meanwhile, Katrina took its toll on the leadership of NOPL. City Librarian Bill Johnson resigned as of the end of July because his wife, who remained in Orlando with her job when he moved to New Orleans in early 2004, had been unable to find work in the Crescent City.

The biggest educational bargain

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold that office, received a standing ovation from the mostly female audience. Albright, the featured speaker, called libraries fun, the biggest educational bargain on the face of the earth, and a laboratory for freedom. She drew applause for her stand against the Patriot Act. Still, not everyone was welcoming. ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) issued a statement saying that keynote speakers should “have helped shape the world in ways consistent with basic humanitarian and library values” and that Albright did not deserve the honor. Albright was vocal about the need to support the independent libraries in Cuba in their opposition to government censorship but also diplomatically praised ALA for its fact-finding visits there and ties with professional Cuban librarians. Citing her history as a refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia, Albright criticized the Cuban government but also said it was necessary to end the U.S. embargo on travel and commerce. Her careful presentation was the result of homework. ALA executive director Keith Fiels said that after ALA learned that Robert Kent of Friends of Cuban Libraries had contacted Albright, ALA made sure the former Secretary of State had access to ALA's positions—a reaction, obviously, to Andrei Codrescu's comments on Cuba in San Antonio at Midwinter in January. “We asked that she share her remarks in advance,” he said, “and, ultimately, the remarks she showed were the remarks she made. She captured both sides, and we think she did a great job.” “What we preach abroad we should also practice at home,” Albright said, segueing over to her new book, Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (HarperCollins). Ethics must be a part of foreign and domestic policy, whether it's the war in Iraq, interfaith understanding, or dealing with the Christian right, she said. Political balance tilted differently when First Lady Laura Bush's visit was confirmed late in the planning. She spoke to about 500 librarians at a well-orchestrated event, “School Libraries Work: Rebuilding for Learning,” sponsored by the American Association of School Librarians and Scholastic, on Monday, June 26. Bush emphasized the key role that functioning schools—and school libraries—play in rebuilding communities. “Until there are schools, families won't return home,” she said, adding that “each of these schools must have a new school library.” The Laura Bush Foundation established a Gulf Coast School Library Recovery initiative, which in May awarded $500,000 in grants to rebuild those facilities. During her speech, Bush went on to announce that the IMLS would award 35 grants totaling $20.8 million to universities, libraries, and library organizations nationwide to recruit and educate librarians. The grants are designed to help offset a current shortage of media specialists, library school faculty, and librarians working in underserved communities, as well as a looming shortage of library directors and other senior librarians owing to retirement.

Welcome to Planet Google

The massive show floor at the convention center was a business-as-usual affair. Some exhibitors had told LJ long before the event that they were trimming their numbers in anticipation of light attendance, while others brought enough staff for a sellout location like Chicago. Exhibit traffic was noticeably down from some previous years but not obviously worse than in those less-than-popular locations. Exhibitors overall seemed pleased with the floor's ebb and flow, with most commenting that the show was “better than I thought it would be.” Brodart's Gretchen Herman noted that “traffic Saturday was better than we ever anticipated. Our booth presentations have been full nonstop.” As for low attendance figures, Herman said, “It's a PLA year, it's New Orleans, so we didn't expect too much.” Another ALA library champion, who requested anonymity, was less happy: “ALA knew what was coming. [It] should have given us a break financially. We're part of this community, too. We want to help.” The most noticeable element on the show floor was the massive Google booth plopped dead center in the middle of everything. Staffed mainly by trade show model-types as opposed to Google employees, the booth drew crowds throughout each day with demonstrations, souvenirs, and a chance to watch Google infomercials featuring enthusiastic librarians. Neighboring exhibitors included EBSCO and Greenwood Publishing, both prominent ALA veterans with countless conferences under their belt. Some complained that, despite their tenure, they must fight with ALA every year for a good “location,” yet Google, which has been exhibiting at ALA for only a handful of years—and previously with a small booth—landed a choice piece of real estate.

Top tech trends

Technology oriented programs filled up as participants sought guidance on how to cope with the swiftly shifting scene. Social networking technologies captured more attention than even the ubiquitous Google. Other technology issues on the table were trends in search technology, the tricky reality of metasearching, and how to use popular technology such as the iPod to connect with patrons. In one of many crowded ballrooms, a dynamic LITA program prognosticated on the future of libraries and technology. Notre Dame's Eric Lease Morgan cited the rise of social networking tools, the problems with metasearch, the growing discontent with library catalogs, and cataloging's transition from complete to just good enough. He warned that the dynamic nature of blogs and wikis pose preservation issues for libraries. Roy Tennant, user services architect of the California Digital Library and an LJ columnist, also cited the need for metasearch, suggesting that new tools like Innovative's Encore and Ex Libris's Primo may help solve its problems. He pointed to the continuing need for filtering and selection: “The good news is everyone can be a publisher, and the bad news is everyone can be a publisher.” He also noted the rise of microcommunities, like code4lib, which give rise to ubiquitous and constant communication. When asked how to spot trends, Tennant responded, “Read and read and read—[electronic lists], web logs. Listen. Participate. Look outside the library literature. Read the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Business 2.0. Finally, look for patterns.”

Linking all books; the future of search

Ben Bunnell, manager of Google Book Search and author of “A Google Librarian Gets into Print” (netConnect, LJ 7/06, p. 28), offered another popular presentation about the company's plans. Bunnell said Google is “close to linking all books”—not just those in the public domain—with the “Find It in a Library” link, a hint that the company is making peace with publishers concerned that web searchers will choose to borrow a library book rather than purchase a copy. The house was packed to hear Stephen Abram of SirsiDynix and Joe Janes of the University of Washington debate the future of search, moderated by Tennant. Abram asked a pointed question, which decided the debate early: “Were libraries ever about search? Search was rarely the point...unless you wanted to become a librarian.” In Abram's view, the current threat to libraries comes from user communities like Facebook and MySpace, since MySpace is now the sixth largest search engine. Abram said users face the challenge of winnowing search results but that people can't be taught to search. “Boolean doesn't work,” he said. More intelligence must be built into the interface, he said, adding that we must focus on the user, not the OPAC. Janes pointed out that none of the current reference services offered by search firms (Google Answers, Yahoo Answers, and Microsoft Answers is coming) have worked well. Tennant observed, “While Google and Yahoo may have the eyeballs of users, libraries have the feet of users.” Since libraries are, in Janes's words, “a conservation organization because the human record is at stake, the worst nightmare is that nothing changes and libraries die. The finest vision is to put Google out of business.” Abram observed that libraries must become better at advocacy and trust users to lay paths through catalog tagging and other vendor initiatives.

The future according to OCLC

“Scanning the Future @ Your Library” featured OCLC vice president of member services George Needham and consultant Joan Frye Williams. They presented a practical guide for implementing patron trends—self-service, disaggregation, and collaboration—found in OCLC's “Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition” (2003) report. Patrons increasingly are oriented toward self-service, said Needham. “We're playing catch-up with users who believe that what they're getting is good enough.” Frye Williams clarified, how-ever, that self-service is not the same as no service. Patrons may want to be in control, she said, but they also want us to “set up the candy store…and then get out of the way.” Frye Williams suggested letting go of perfectionism, reducing library clutter, consolidating desks for initial information requests, and using situational signage, not jargon. Label an online resource, for example, “Get articles for homework,” not “EBSCOhost.” She advised training all staff to become capable to assist patrons with basic navigation and end user tools. She also suggested self-check as the primary method, a downloadable OPAC tool for patron PCs, and touch screens, as well as the prominent placement of a fundraising vehicle on the library's web site. Frye Williams also urged librarians to focus on value-added information (metatagging) and repurposing (podcasts). Librarians should be involved in selling flash drives (to carry away information), fixing up people's notes and research, and offering a variety of “trickle-up technology” originating from consumer sites, she suggested.

Serving independent users

At the RUSA-MARS program “Who's Out There, and What Are They Doing? Supporting the Independent User,” John Horrigan, associate director of research, Pew Internet Research Project, and Tennant discussed the growing phenomenon of library users who bypass librarians. Horrigan foresaw an opportunity for libraries to leverage their traditional role by brokering information transactions. Tennant said libraries should make their technology and online services (instant and text messaging, online music, video, link sharing, etc.) discoverable and easy to use and meet the users where they are, with mall outlets and bookmobiles. “Most of our web sites are really bad,” Tennant warned. “Pay attention to your design and make sure that your site is crawled by Google, Yahoo, and other search engines.”

ALA business

At the first Council meeting, some councilors challenged the method for choosing keynote and featured speakers for ALA conferences, wanting a more participatory system. Politically charged remarks by speakers like Codrescu and Albright prompted the discussion. No action was taken, but new guidelines are in the works. ALA's Endowment Trustees reported a fund increase from $11,619,997 in 2002 to $25,212,173 in 2005, then a rise and retreat this year. With the dues increase passed earlier this year, ALA will gain about $1.2 million in additional funds by 2010. ALA's Budget Committee will continue to study a graduated dues structure based on librarian salaries, adding another year to the decades such a measure has been on the agenda. ALA membership is now at 66,382, up 2.3 percent from 2005. The APA (Allied Professional Association), however, is still in deficit, “both in dollars and credibility,” according to Councilor James Casey. Many objected to inflated revenue expectations, including $115,000 for the sale of statistics reports and a new salary survey and $20,000 in grants not yet applied for. A tiny minority voted against the APA budget of $318,875 for FY07. While the APA Council approved a “Resolution on Support for Freedom To Form Unions: The Employee Free Choice Act,” it rejected a resolution entitled “Support for Overtime Pay Protections” because it had not been reviewed by ALA's Committee on Legislation (CoL). At Council II, a “Resolution on Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) Laws” was approved. It called for ALA and allied library associations to oppose laws like Proposition 13 in California, Illinois tax caps, and Colorado's TABOR, which caused such budgetary shortfalls and closing of key government agencies that it was suspended. An SSRT resolution calling upon libraries and ALA to take steps to increase public awareness of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, passed; it had been approved at the ALA membership meeting. During Council III, the CoL brought several resolutions, all of which were approved, including support for EPA and federal libraries, the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, and network neutrality. A “Resolution in Support of Online Social Networks” was passed as a response to H.R. 5319, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which would expand the Children's Internet Protection Act by tying E-rate discounts to blocking social network web sites like MySpace.

Righting Doe

Council approved the Intellectual Freedom Committee resolutions on retention of library use records, urging ALA to lead a “national conversation about privacy as an American value” and commending the “John Doe's” of the Library Connection (Windsor, CT) for defending the privacy of user records against the Patriot Act. Indeed, on the Monday of the conference, the request for library records had been dropped, not just the gag order on the four librarians. When Library Connection VP Peter Chase revealed that “the FBI has decided to withdraw completely from the case,” the 100 or so librarians in attendance rose for a standing ovation. Commented George Christian, executive director of the Library Connection, “I don't think the FBI caved in on the merits of the case. They didn't like the spotlight”.

Transformation to come

Princeton Public Library director Leslie Burger, the incoming ALA president, galvanized an enthusiastic crowd at her inaugural, prompting much cheering and several more standing ovations. After an unusually emotional farewell from ALA president Gorman at the Inaugural Banquet on Tuesday night, Burger declared that she had a wish list for libraries, including solid funding, good pay for librarians and library workers, and a central role for libraries as “destinations of choice...for learning and enjoyment, gatherings and discussion, places to thrive and grow.” After citing “wonderful examples” of new libraries in Seattle, Salt Lake City, the University of Virginia, Mount Holyoke College, and New York City public schools, Burger offered a sobering message: “We must embrace this simple truth—libraries cannot transform their communities unless we transform ourselves.” Describing efforts to transform reference service, library catalogs, approaches to customer service, buildings, and collections, Burger said some staff and librarians are “tired and burned out on change.” Calling her agenda for her presidential year “ambitious and necessary,” Burger announced that her theme would be “Libraries Transform Communities,” a path to not only providing new services and facilities but to stimulating more public support. She will foster a national library agenda. Practical tips will be developed to help transform libraries “regardless of budget constraints.” Several “summit” meetings will be held at ALA's Midwinter Meeting and annual conference in 2007. A “transformation tool kit” will be published in print and online. The national advocacy effort will be expanded via the web, using a domain name owned by Burger: welovelibraries.org. A “pool of emerging leaders” will be developed with tools to advance the ALA and the transformation agenda. Ambitious, indeed, and a worthy challenge.
Andrew Albanese is Editor, Academic Newswire; John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ; Lynn Blumenstein is Senior Editor, Library Hotline; Jay Datema is Editor, Technology, LJ; Francine Fialkoff is Editor-in-Chief, LJ; Brian Kenney is Editor-in-Chief, School Library Journal; Rebecca Miller is Executive Editor, LJ; Norman Oder is Editor, News, LJ; Michael Rogers is Editor, InfoTech, LJ; and Wilda Williams is Fiction Editor, LJ
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