February 16, 2018

LJ Talks to Robert Skinner

By LJ Staff

Robert SkinnerMonths after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Region, and with the ALA annual conference set for New Orleans, some good news came out of that devastated city in January: students returned to a number of local campuses. LJ caught up with Xavier University librarian – and crime noir novelist – Robert Skinner to talk about his experience with Katrina, the state of the university, and the city.

LJ: It was good news to read how your library has bounced back. What have been the major challenges?

For me, the greatest challenge was just being able to get back onto the campus. Except for a brief visit to view the progress BMS Catastrophe was making with the recovery of the Library, I was off campus from August 27, 2005 until January 5th, 2006. Apparently the contractors who were engaged in the recovery/reconstruction of the campus didn’t want any well-meaning amateurs getting in the way. I appreciated their view, but think we could have done some good if we’d been allowed to return, say, in November. It was also very difficult dealing with the lack of hard news coming out of the city about the university. Really dependable news about the state of the campus was rare, and some of what I heard initially turned out to be false. We were initially told that the Library was flooded to the second floor, and of course we really only got a bit more than a foot of water on the ground floor. Drama was a lot more easily come by in those days than facts.

LJ: What affects are you dealing with and what might be the longer-term effects or costs for the library?

The big challenge upon our return was dealing with a smaller staff. Nearly all of the paraprofessional staff were laid off months ago, and several of the faculty were terminated. People who wanted to come back couldn’t because of age, family considerations, or simply because they had nowhere to live. I had over 30 faculty and staff last August, today I have 19. Today everybody, including me, wears two or three hats every day. Beyond that, there were non-functioning photocopy machines, dead telephone and fax lines, an inability to access e-mail or the library web page – small things that irritated everyone. For the future, a lot depends on how well we can convince the current student body and prospective students that Xavier still offers a quality experience, and that campus life can make up for the loss of cultural and entertainment activities that were part of the old New Orleans. Our budget is very much tied to student enrollment, so for the Library to offer service at current levels, we need to reassert our value in the student marketplace.

Roughly 75 percent or so of students returned to Xavier this January. Are you optimistic about how that future will unfold?

I always try to be optimistic, particularly these days. I think New Orleans will come back, but will be a smaller, and perhaps slightly different city. Xavier’s reputation is such that it will continue to draw students, particularly those with an eye toward a career in the health sciences. Perhaps we’ll also attract a slightly different student, one with a sense of adventure or a pioneering spirit. We’ll need that, both in the city and on campus, because the rebuilding will go on for years.

LJ: What was your experience was like with Katrina on a personal level?

We’ve been evacuating for hurricanes for the past several years, and each time it was a false alarm. We’d have a brief unscheduled holiday and then come back to business as usual. I think all of us got a little complacent about the experience, and some of us, myself included, didn’t actually intend to evacuate at all. When it became plain that this one was for real, we left in a hurry, many of us forgetting to take rolodexes or lists of staff cell phone numbers. When the city was inundated by flood waters, it became plain that we were in for a long siege, few of us knew where any of the others were. For many of us, our homes were destroyed and our possessions gone. There was also a fear that some colleagues didn’t make it and may have been killed. I’ve never known a more emotionally trying time than that.

LJ: And on a professional level?

Professionally I was faced with the fact that a library and collections that I had helped build over a nineteen year period might be gone, and my employment along with it. It was with a sense of real relief that the University put up an emergency web site and began compiling lists of faculty and temporary e-mail addresses. Once we began to find each other, we began talking about what we could do immediately, and might do later.It wasn’t much to keep a person going, but it was at least something to do.

I was uplifted reading the story of your landing in St. Francisville after the storm, and your work in the library there. What did that experience mean to you?

I can’t say enough about the generosity of spirit shown to me and other refugees by Linda Fox and the staff of the West Feliciana Parish Library. They were confronted by something few small public libraries have ever faced, and they did it with calm professionalism and a real sense of organizational strength. They made it possible for hundreds of people to have equal access to about a dozen Internet-capable workstations for months with only rare shows of conflict. They were particularly kind to me, once they realized I was a librarian without a library. After I got to be a familiar face, Ms. Fox offered me a volunteer job, which I gratefully accepted. They had a mass of genealogical materials that they’d not found time to organize, and although I’d never worked extensively with genealogy, I accepted the job – maybe because I’d been so starved for a library to work in. Later, after Ms. Fox learned that I had worked as a critic and writer of noir fiction, she got the Louisiana Center for the Book to sponsor a program where I talked about the hard-boiled or noir novel and discussed some of the major practitioners. It was a wonderful act of kindness that I enjoyed very much.

That’s right, you’re a novelist! Can you tell us a bit about the writing part of your career?

I was interested in writing from my earliest time in librarianship. I’ve written on library topics, some history, and for much of my career critical explorations of American novelists. I’ve contributed to several books dealing with the career of Chester Himes, and have written about Elmore Leonard, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and a handful of others.Around 1989 I became interested in writing fiction and after studying for a few semesters in the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans began writing a series of noir novels about a racially-mixed nightclub owner named Wesley Farrell who solves crimes in Depression-era New Orleans. I’ve also published other kinds of fiction in Louisiana Literature, War, Literature and the Arts, Xavier Review, and the online magazine PLOTSWITHGUNS.com. I’m not so much a writer as a librarian who sometimes writes when he’s got the time and leisure to do it – in other words not lately.

As for the city, with ALA coming in June, can you give us a boots-on-the-ground view of things? What would you say to a librarian maybe on the fence about making the trip?

As always, bring light clothes and carry water. It’ll be hot and humid, like always. There won’t be as much of the city to explore, but the French Quarter, which has survived innumerable fires and floods persists with little outward change. Be aware that you’ll be coming into a city that nearly died, and some of the citizens will still be a little shell-shocked by the experience. Some familiar landmarks will be gone, or may be changed, but just as many probably survived. Visits to the area academic libraries might be of interest to those who’d like to know more about surviving a library disaster and would like to see the efforts to restore what was damaged and lost. There will still be plenty of gumbo, pralines, and Sazerac cocktails to go around.