November 24, 2014

Bringing 21 Libraries Back to the Gulf Coast: Tales of Resilience, Lessons Learned

This is the complete version of the story included in LJ’s post-ALA coverage in the August print issue (with lots of photographs and analysis).

The turmoil that arrived with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the late summer of 2005 lingers, with potent reminders throughout American Library Association (ALA) conference presentations and in conference-goers’ reflections on the changes to New Orleans since ALA’s last visit in summer 2006, when it was the first major conference to return to the city. That emotional mix of pride in what had been accomplished spiked by sudden stings of pain in remembering the traumas was perhaps never more present than in the two-hour presentation on Saturday, June 25, on the rebuilding of 21 libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The $12 million Gulf Coast Libraries Project was funded in 2006 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by LYRASIS, with MaryEllin Santiago brought in as project manager. It set out to stabilize library service in the area for the short term in temporary facilities, replace lost technology, and secure sustainable service by getting libraries rebuilt.

“You’ve accomplished these three things with flying colors,” said the Gates Foundation’s Jill Nishi, who also recalled visiting in 2006 to see what the foundation could do to help. “I was inspired by what the library field was doing down here with limited assets and limited staff…. Libraries continued to be an essential lifeline for so many.”

The critical, even “lifesaving” service libraries provide was highlighted in the early days following the storms, noted Melinda Gates in a video presentation. “The work you do has never been more important.”

Nishi also remembered worrying that libraries wouldn’t be valued as communities rebuilt. “I was concerned that if libraries were out of sight, out of mind, they would be a smaller priority as the region rebuilt,” she said. “The libraries here have been not just built back but built back stronger than ever.”

Stay at the table with services

Self-deprecating and blunt, Santiago described her total shock upon arriving in the area for a one-week tour in 2006 and meetings on what would be needed. “When I landed I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” The depth of the problem, from the funky old cars available for rent to the miles on the road with no services in sight to the realities of what had been lost at the first library she visited, made her realize the recovery of library service “was going to be a whole different ball game.”

The biggest lesson, she said, emerged out of librarians’ immediate response to get up and running at whatever capacity they could. “Get to the table with services right away,” she said. “If you do not rebuild as soon as possible, I can assure you that you will not be on the list to rebuild.”

Santiago recalled initially wondering, “Maybe we didn’t have the capacity to do all 21 [libraries]. Well, shame on you, MaryEllin!”

Among the long-term outcomes, Santiago said, are that public libraries are “at the table” like never before, library leaders are more confident, technology has taken a leap into the future, and libraries are recognized as essential services.

Santiago noted that an update to Section 403 of the Stafford Act set libraries’ status in stone on the federal level by placing libraries in the list of facilities that provide “essential community services” and are eligible for FEMA’s temporary relocation facilities. “This,” she said, “will live well beyond anyone in this room.”

Perspectives from the ground

More nitty-gritty insight came from four panelists who saw their communities through the recovery thus far. What’s emerged from the difficult and extended recovery process for Calcasieu Parish Public Library, LA, noted Tony Zaunbacher, a library board member, is a vision for a better future for the library and deeper commitment to the library from the community. In 2009, 91 percent of voters approved a ten-year, 5.99-mill property tax. That support was earned both in the immediate aftermath and the ongoing recovery with responsive and creative library services.

Such service sprang up throughout the region. In Biloxi, MI, said library director Charline Longino, one branch was ready to go right away because it shared infrastructure with the fire department—“which I highly recommend as a space partner,” she said. “We had lights, water….”

She noted that she had relearned important lessons that informed how they rebuilt. “You can have a library with a phone, a computer, and an Internet connection, because that is what people needed first.”

Her takeaway: design for flexibility for service. “A shoebox is a good design for a library,” Longino said. And put electrical plugs everywhere.

Also, she noted, the local history collection provides an invaluable link to the time before the devastation, as do new buildings that reference the past to create continuity in the community.

The librarians also got to know the community more intimately. “You really get to know your patrons in a trailer,” Longino said, “because they can’t get more than eight feet away from you.” Such proximity revealed that kids were playing commercial-laden games on the computers, leading to an investment in early literacy computers to raise the quality of the gaming experience.

Internally, Longino reflected, the librarians had to reimagine how they provided service, since they couldn’t afford departmentalized libraries any more. “A new model of service [emerged],” she said, focusing on one-stop shopping, with one service point.

Longino’s efforts were supported by invested town leaders, who recognized the library’s importance right away, according to Vince Creel, Biloxi’s public information officer. The library had always been central to the city both in location and as a valued “sanctuary of knowledge,” he said. Biloxi lost 5000 structures, and leaders engaged 200 volunteers over three months to talk about what to build back and how.

Assumptions dispelled

From the relatively broad bird’s-eye view at the state level, said Sharman Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission, the hurricanes and the recovery exposed some big assumptions that quickly got dispelled:

  1. “A library’s disaster plan is complete.” And, in tandem, staff will be present to implement the plan.
  2. “Insurance will cover it.”
  3. “If we had our electronic data outside the library it would be safe.” This, she noted, is not true if the disaster is big enough.
  4. “We’ll be back to normal in no time.”

These hard lessons were balanced by a reinforcement of the value of libraries in good and bad times. “People depend on their library,” Smith said. “We have evidence of that now.” And they rely on libraries even more so in times of need.

Most important, Smith said, she learned again that the staff is “the most important part of the library…. Librarians are amazing, resourceful people, and they do amazing things for their communities.”

[Photos below, courtesy of MaryEllin Santiago, are from the Gulf Coast Libraries Project, Recognition Event,  Friday June 24 at the JW Marriott.]

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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