November 24, 2017

All (Librarian) Hands on Deck

By Marylaine Block with Ann Kim

Librarians lead the way on the long journey to recovery and rebuilding

As the profiles of Patricia Husband (p. 31) and Ann Curtis (p. 27) begin to indicate, librarians stepped up to the plate to rescue materials and meet the needs of thousands of uprooted evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, employing their unique skills and resources to put forth a humane and herculean effort. In Houston and Austin, TX; Baton Rouge, LA; Memphis; Fayetteville, AR; and many other cities, librarians extended hours to provide both Internet workstations and staff to help people look for missing relatives, find jobs and housing, and fill out FEMA applications. Librarians relocated computers and books to shelters, where they also gave story hours and listened to evacuees’ dramatic accounts. They put up web pages linking users with every kind of service they would need: schools, food, housing, job listings, and more. Their hard work and perseverance provided valuable services in this time of crisis.


Crisis responders

As the profiles of Patricia Husband and Ann Curtis begin to indicate, librarians stepped up to the plate to rescue materials and meet the needs of thousands of uprooted evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, employing their unique skills and resources to put forth a humane and herculean effort. In Houston and Austin, TX; Baton Rouge, LA; Memphis; Fayetteville, AR; and many other cities, librarians extended hours to provide both Internet workstations and staff to help people look for missing relatives, find jobs and housing, and fill out FEMA applications. Librarians relocated computers and books to shelters, where they also gave story hours and listened to evacuees’ dramatic accounts. They put up web pages linking users with every kind of service they would need: schools, food, housing, job listings, and more. Their hard work and perseverance provided valuable services in this time of crisis.

Some librarians went the hands-on route to provide relief. When widespread power failures closed Washington County PL, AL, Director Jessica Ross and her staff went into the streets. Ross – who was helping the Red Cross hand out bottles of water to the thousands of grumpy, frustrated drivers waiting in long gas lines – retrieved boxes of donations for her library’s book sale and started handing out titles. Catherine Whitney, assistant librarian, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, Houston, gathered clothing to distribute to hurricane survivors in the Houston Astrodome.

Other librarians in surrounding areas strove to offer expanded library services and took advantage of their unique position to provide space and resources for relief workers. At the Kiln PL – the only branch of the Hancock County Library System, MS, not destroyed or seriously damaged – librarian Sandra Ladner ‘immediately opened the library seven days a week for library and recovery assistance services,’ says Sharman Smith, executive director, Mississippi Library Commission (MLC). ‘The county’s volunteer coordination center was run by the library; a phone bank was set up for residents; satellite Internet service was provided for relief efforts; well-water testing kits were distributed; and shower facilities were set up on the library parking lot.’

The Nacogdoches Public Library, TX, shares a building with the community’s recreation center, the primary shelter serving 300 Katrina evacuees. Director Anne Barker extended library hours so staff and volunteers could help people search for missing relatives and apply for assistance. Meanwhile, also setting up shop in the building were the Red Cross, Texas National Guard, Head Start, United Way, Texas Workforce Commission, and assorted other agencies. A month later, as Hurricane Rita approached and hotel rooms were full, the library became both office and dormitory for 35 members of the Southwest Alabama Disaster Medical Assistance Team and Texas Baptist Men (who provided meals, washing machines, and shower facilities in the parking lot). With temperatures up to 100° and 80 percent of the city and county without electricity, the library was one of the few places in town with air conditioning. ‘My husband and I slept on the floor in my office,’ Barker says, ‘and the library floors were covered with rows of inflated mattresses, shirts were hung on hangers anchored to book shelf brackets, and towels were hung to dry over artificial plants.’

East Baton Rouge Parish Library retiree Beth Bingham cheerfully took up the reins of supervising Baton Rouge’s ‘shelter library’ and opened her own home to ProQuest’s volunteers, since local hotels were filled with evacuees. ‘I’ve spent over 20 days in Baton Rouge this fall, all of them as a guest at Beth Bingham’s,’ says Curtis, trade show manager at ProQuest. ‘Along with two intrepid ProQuest tech specialists, I even rode out Hurricane Rita at Beth’s house.’ Curtis also credits Beth Paskoff, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of Information and Library Science, for bringing in graduate students to work in the shelter library ‘at a critical juncture when we thought we’d have to pack up and go home.’ (For more information about the Baton Rouge shelter library, see Beth Dempsey’s ‘Responding to Disaster,’ 2006 Buyer’s Guide, LJ 12/05).

And when Hurricane Rita headed straight for coastal Louisiana, Cameron Parish Library director Charlotte Trosclair loaded her computer server onto the bookmobile and drove it out of the parish, saving both bookmobile and server. Though Rita destroyed four of the five branches, Trosclair was back and had the surviving building open for business within a few days.

Several libraries became extensions of city/county government during the crisis. Librarians from Memphis PL & Information Center (which operates the city’s 211 information hotline), ‘trained volunteers, advised local and state emergency responder organizations, and were key members of the community’s Emergency Management Assistance teams,’ says Lillian Johnson, public relations supervisor.

Many librarians immediately launched book drives – not to restock library shelves but to help evacuees and recovery personnel. Penny Brown, librarian, Livermore PL, ME, learned that shelters for families displaced by Katrina lacked diversionary reading, so she organized Read for Relief, a book donation program that benefited evacuees in Monroeville, AL. She enlisted 23 other Maine libraries in the effort, and they donated more than 1500 boxes of books. Adelaide Fletcher, library systems specialist, Ochsner Clinic Foundation Medical Library, New Orleans, got an overwhelming response to her request on Medlib-L for reference books for doctors in hurricane shelters in the Baton Rouge area.

The Internet once again proved itself a powerful tool for those stranded, with blogs playing an important role in communication. Brenda Gunn, president of the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA), knew that librarians were frantic to find out what had happened to their colleagues, libraries, and historic collections. With technical assistance from her husband, Stan Gunn (a lecturer at the University of Texas SLIS), she created the blog SSACares (www.ssacares.org), which was up and running by Friday, September 2, just four days after Katrina hit land. The site now includes space for colleague checkin, information on affected repositories, needs, photos, job listings, recovery vendors, and supply and space donations.

Damage control

With damaged or destroyed materials and buildings, librarians in turn needed a lot of help to embark on a long journey to recovery and rebuilding. Although local history librarian Jamie Bounds Ellis, Biloxi PL, MS, moved much of her collection out of harm’s way before Hurricane Katrina hit, Charline Longino, head librarian at Biloxi PL, says that ‘several librarians braved two feet of mud, seaweed, storm debris, and floating books to retrieve materials that otherwise would have been damaged or destroyed in the following weeks by damp, heat (95° or better), and mildew/mold.’ MLC’s Smith notes that Longino herself ‘waded through toxic sludge laced with sewage and debris to rescue the library’s original one-of-a-kind photographic collection and other original documents about the Mississippi Gulf Coast.’

Many individuals and organizations reached out to help with the first step in restoration of damaged collections: assessment and stabilization to prevent further deterioration. Among them was Randy Silverman, a preservation librarian at the University of Utah. He traveled to libraries and museums in Mississippi as part of a History Emergency Assistance Recovery Team under the auspices of the American Institute for Conservation and the American Association for State and Local History. Wearing gloves, respirators, and boots to protect against water moccasins, he and others like him worked with volunteers to dry out sodden books and photographs; they also wrote grant proposals and helped institutions apply for emergency funding pledged by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Silverman returned home with dozens of horrifying photos and dreams of a mobile trailer ‘that could have drying supplies inside – with maybe a generator to power a dehumidifier and some fans.’ He plans to keep working for a better national response when the next disaster hits.

Two weeks after Katrina, Ann Frellsen, collections conservator at Emory University, Atlanta, and Christine Wiseman, preservation services manager at the Georgia Archives, Morrow, conducted assessments of 19 archives and historical repositories in the three coastal counties of Mississippi damaged by the hurricane. They visited libraries, city halls, court houses, historical societies, museums, and private collections. They noted the amount of damaged materials at all sites so that plans could be made for freezer trucks and climate-controlled storage, and, concerned about mold hazards, they ‘talked to staff about the importance of taking personal safety precautions and trained people to use respirators properly.’

The Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) played a major role in restoration. Executive Director Kate Nevins says Tina Mason, SOLINET’s preservation services specialist, provided support and advice to librarians at stricken libraries via phone and email, arranged materials recovery workshops in Mississippi and Louisiana, and is now overseeing a library-by-library assessment for the Mellon Foundation.

Reaching out & rebuilding

Further assistance came in many different forms in the aftermath of the hurricanes, with other efforts continuing unabated now six months later. North Suburban Library System, IL, was one of many institutions that participated in the American Library Association’s Adopt a Library Program. Sarah Long, director of the library, asked Lon Dickerson, director of the Jefferson Parish Library, what kinds of materials he needed. ‘Anything,’ he replied, ‘but remember this is a public library, so material needs to be new or almost new and it needs to be relevant to everyday life.’ As a result, Long drafted a set of guidelines for book donations, stipulating they should be new or like-new condition, no older than ten years, undamaged, and unmarked.

In December 2005, when the Maryland Library Association board voted to adopt a sister library in Pearlington, MS, and enlisted libraries to contribute, director John Taube, Allegany County Library, Cumberland, donated books – and a bookmobile to replace temporarily Pearlington’s storm-gutted library. Cash donations were used to refurbish the vehicle, more than 3000 donated volumes and audiobooks were loaded on board, and SirsiDynix outfitted the vehicle with hardware and software. Three Allegany County librarians then drove it to Mississippi. SirsiDynix CEO Patrick Sommers said, ‘We understand that the sooner the library returns to normalcy then the sooner Hancock County returns to normalcy.’

The Connecticut State Library (CSL) staff responded generously to the governor’s call for donations to support the relief efforts in the Gulf Coast. Collection management office assistant Rose Hill-Berrios and library technician Laura Klojzy organized collection efforts at the main library and at their Trinity facility in Hartford.

The Texas State Library also announced an emergency grant program to aid Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Called Texas Responds, the grant program will fund Texas library services and programs for Katrina victims who have evacuated to Texas.

The Louisiana State Library gathered and posted a status report on damaged libraries on its web site (www.state.lib.la.us), as well as a book list for children affected by the hurricane and a summary of what children’s librarians throughout the state had done for children in shelters.

Tracy L. Thompson, executive director of the New England Law Library Consortium (NELLCO), says NELLCO has established a site to collect information on libraries’ generous offers of replacement legal materials, ‘which will be disseminated to those law libraries in need when they are back in a position to begin to rebuild their collections.’

Large-scale effort

The Medical Libraries Association (MLA) set up a web site (www.mlanet.org/hurricane_katrina.html) that collects information and serves as a clearinghouse and information resource for the many efforts members have made to support their friends and neighbors. MLA had collected $10,400 in donations for hurricane relief as of February 7. Funds can be used for collections, consortial memberships, and computers – any reasonable request will be considered.

SOLINET staff members Michael Williams, Fatima Raza, Clayton Kopp, and Sara Swain put together SOLINET’s Katrina Disaster Response Site ‘practically overnight’ (www.solinet.net/Disaster_templ.cfm?doc_id=3761) and ‘managed the volunteering of resources for libraries and the job bank of temporary and permanent jobs for displaced library employees,’ says Executive Director Kate Nevins.

The Special Libraries Association’s (SLA) Information Professionals’ Alliance on Natural Disasters and Accidents (IPANDA) is conducting outreach to librarians and information professionals in the Gulf Coast area and is using a blog to connect with SLA members and other information professionals (www.sla.org/content/resources/disasterrelief/index.cfm).

The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) newsletter reported that ‘Thanks to the good services of Executive Board member Kathie Sullivan, we have established a blog to keep track of our members affected by Hurricane Katrina, AALL LawLibAssist (aallnet.typepad.com/katrina), which gives members of AALL the opportunity to offer assistance to their friends and colleagues.’

As LJ has previously noted (‘Vendors’ Powerful Response to Katrina,’ LJ web site, 9/19/05), numerous vendors have generously assisted libraries impacted by the hurricanes. William P. Kane, regional sales manager for Alibris, ‘initiated Alibris’s response to Hurricane Katrina, collaborating with the Texas Library Association (TLA) to create a matching program whereby books donated to TLA as replacements for materials lost to the hurricane are matched one-to-one by Alibris.’ OCLC has offered to match total staff donations up to $10,000 to help library staff and their families. It’s also exploring how it can help libraries rebuild collections. (Read our special thank you to vendors.)

Plight of NOPL

What of the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL)? Both furloughed library staff volunteers and the 19 staff members retained after drastic budget cuts labored mightily to assess damage and restore what services they could. Sharon Kohl and Jeff Bostick rescued CDs and DVDs from damaged branches and cleaned the ones that suffered water damage. Irene Wainwright and Heidi DeSalvo worked with the administration to inventory and evaluate software lost at the Learning Center at the King branch. Earl McCray and Paul Gabriel worked on getting the system’s ‘dry branches’ (Hubbell, Children’s Resource Center, Latter, and Nix) in physical condition for eventual reopening. ‘Post-Katrina reference work continues to be a juxtaposition of the tragic and the mundane,’ reports Bostick. ‘For every patron asking for directions or the phone book there are three more trying to locate loved ones or seeking recourse from rent-gouging landlords. The public’s need for information about community and government relief services is great.’ Watch for announcements at the Public Library Association conference of LJ‘s efforts to restore a branch of NOPL.

To these outstanding librarians, volunteers, vendors, and others – and to all those we haven’t mentioned who offered aid and comfort to victims of the storms – Library Journal wishes to say, ‘Thank you for embodying the spirit of our profession.’

 

LJ gathered the stories of a number of these Movers & Shakers, but we recognize the sampling below is only one voice in a chorus of roles librarians played and continue to play in the hurricane response and recovery effort.

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