February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year 2009: Team Cedar Rapids

After the flood, CRPL buoys the community

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2009


The warning came a scant five-and-a-half hours ahead of the water June 11. Predicted to top out at 24 feet, the Cedar River crested at 31. Despite heroic efforts by the staff to move everything out of danger to 26′-high shelves, the Cedar Rapids Public Library (CRPL), IA, lost 160,000 items including large parts of its adult and youth collections, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, CDs, and DVDs. Most of its public access computers were destroyed as was its computer lab and microfilm equipment. The automatic circulation and security systems were ruined. On top of that, the 84,000 square foot Central Library was contaminated and has been closed ever since those three days in June. The work of the CRPL management team to restore service and embrace the recovery is an inspiration for Cedar Rapids and for all librarians.

Even before the flood receded, the CRPL team and staff didn’t miss a beat. Every manager and employee kept their jobs, and many were “loaned” to other city agencies and to the area’s Metro Library Partnership Consortium. Some library workers staffed the 311 telephone lines that kept the people of Cedar Rapids informed as they worked to recover from the flood, reinforcing how effective librarians are at serving the public.

At first, they conducted service from the small (2600 square feet) branch in the Westdale Mall, which is some distance from the city center. The administrative managers were put in offices in the temporary city hall. While the flood waters ebbed, the management team met and planned their counterattack for recovery. Now, everyone is back working in new spaces in the Westdale Mall.

For their courage, their indomitable optimism, and their deep and strong commitment to uninterrupted library service to the people of Cedar Rapids, the CRPL management team has been named the 2009 LJ Librarian of the Year. That team, led by Interim Director Tamara Glise, includes adult services manager Karen Johnson, children’s services manager Carol Hoke, circulation services manager Christina Riedel, adult services coordinator Rebecca Bartlett, external communication coordinator Marie DeVries, Iowa Substance Abuse Information Center’s Barb Gay, IT services managers Roger Rayborn and Leon Green, shelver manager Pat Schabo, and maintenance manager Jeff Krohn.

The “Year of the River”

Glise, at CRPL for 11 years, is proud of the way the staff of 113 have responded to the disaster. Public awareness of the library and its importance to this library-savvy community is a high priority, and it was actually enhanced by the team’s efforts.

Still, Glise is not sure they’ll ever get back into the 24-year-old main library that was the pride of Cedar Rapids. It is one option, but another is to build a new library. As she recounts the efforts to save the collection, she notes that, ironically, 2008 had been designated “the year of the river” as part of a city- and countywide redevelopment effort.

Glise is still optimistic. “I try to be cautious,” she says, “because so many residents ask if we’re back in the library yet. We have to let them know that this is a very slow process. It could be three years before we have a main library again.”

The plan is to create a “bridge facility” in the six storefronts CRPL now occupies in the mall, according to Susan Corrigan, president of the CRPL Board of Trustees. A local architectural firm, OPN Associates, has donated design services. The biggest space will be the adult, reference, and children’s collections. Already, CRPL’s Technology Center is bringing crowds of patrons to one storefront, and the library’s Substance Abuse Information Center, funded by the state Department of Public Health, occupies another.

“We still need library service and a facility in downtown Cedar Rapids,” says Corrigan, who works as a senior manager in investment reporting at insurance firm Aegon USA. “Maybe we’ll use a bookmobile at the old building, or partner with someone already downtown. We need a presence in that area while we rebuild.”

Like Glise, Corrigan, who coauthored the nomination of the CRPL team for this award, is open to any option for CRPL’s future. “We may try to rebuild at the old location, or build anew at a new site,” she says. “The library will get some FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds to rebuild, and [that] will help us decide which course of action will be best. The process is just getting started now.” According to Corrigan, CRPL research indicates that no U.S. public library has faced losses this staggering in a disaster.

Aegon USA has been totally supportive of Corrigan’s library work. She has been CRPL board president since July 1 and was VP prior to that.

“I am absolutely optimistic,” Corrigan says. “The community recognizes the library as an essential city service, and libraries have incredible healing power. Our library will be an important part of the community’s [recovery].”

Saving the story

The other nominator, Christine Schuey, president of the CRPL Foundation, a separate charity that supports library capital projects, is an investment manager at the local Wells Fargo Bank. Schuey believes it is crucial to validate and preserve the experience of the flood.

“We are very proud of how the team handled this disaster, and we want to document the story. Someday people are going to need our information. The city is going to need a place to preserve…. If everything we have done as a city and at the library is documented, three years or 30 years from now another community with this experience can refer to and use all this information,” Schuey asserts. “We have to get the library up and running, even just to have a place for all that information for ourselves and others.”

DeVries coordinates CRPL’s external communications, but her regular job is development director; she’s the only employee of the CRPL Foundation. Right after the flood, she was enlisted by the board to handle communications.

“So much depends on the situation with FEMA, and the old library is right there in a 100-year flood plain,” says DeVries. FEMA has scheduled a tour of the library soon. If the old library is more that 50 percent destroyed, FEMA could recommend a new building. “Working with FEMA is often a matter of negotiation,” says DeVries. In the meantime, she fields hundreds of calls and media requests from all over the country. Even without a final plan, DeVries says CRPL’s foundation has raised nearly $250,000, but a fundraising campaign will begin when the decision is made to renovate or replace the main library.

The proof of programs

Children’s services manager Hoke, a 23-year veteran at CRPL, remembers the midsummer Wednesday when the CRPL Summer Reading Program had just begun and the flood came. The management team met “to decide who would take care of what.” The first thing Hoke did was work to get CRPL’s unique and valuable collection of children’s book illustrations to safety.

“We think that library programs are important, and even in this cramped mall space we’re doing more of them now. We have book discussions, programs for young adults, and a lot for children,” says Hoke, who sets up much of the programming at CRPL. “It keeps our name out there…. People will know that CRPL didn’t float away and that we’re still here, still functioning.”

Not quite as many children attend all CRPL programs because the mall is not centrally located. Still, story times seem just as full, says Hoke. Many homes near the library were lost, and lots of regular users have been scattered and their lives disrupted.

The big programs, like White Lights, the CRPL holiday music program, now take place in the large public space in the center of the mall. A bell choir from a local church performed recently for CRPL, and at one of the library-sponsored “brown bag briefings,” someone demonstrated how to design and make holiday gift wrap. The full schedule of story times continues.

Because of the fear of mold and contamination, CRPL’s children’s collection, although mostly safe, was locked up. It has been cleared, and they get some books out now, but Hoke says some 45,000 or more are still on shelves downtown.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be in a main library in a few years, but where and when I couldn’t say,” says Hoke. “I’m so busy now, even with our limitations, that I don’t have time to worry about it.”

Listen, set priorities

“It has been frustrating for us and the patrons,” says CRPL adult services manager Johnson, remembering the mistaken flood crest predictions. “This is a very engaged community, and they love this library.” After eight years at CRPL, where she handles collection development and maintenance, processing, reference and information service, and some programming, she loves the way everyone works together. “Right now, we listen to the public, find out what they want and need most urgently. We plan to replace everything soon, but we try to keep up with the new things for now.”

Riedel, manager of circulation, has been at the library for just a year-and-a-half and brought a few years of management experience when she came. “I wanted experience when I took this job, but I didn’t know I would get this kind,” she laughs. “In many ways, this has been a tremendous learning opportunity.”

“If you focus on the things that are the most difficult you will spin your wheels. We decided our priorities were the community and our staff, and then we just went for it,” says Riedel proudly. “You rarely get to be on a team like this, which really takes care of one another and the public. The main lesson is that you have to prioritize your basic services, not just all the technical stuff but the basic customer services, and make sure they are working first. You learn that awareness of the library is a big issue after a disaster. People don’t always realize how much you actually offer when you get back to work. Whether we get back in that old building or not, we have this great opportunity to look at our service, decide what we can do better, and improve our organization. It is like a new start.”

After the flood, the Iowa City Public Library loaned CRPL 16 computers, and CRPL is replacing more of the over 60 that were lost, about half of the building’s total. “I had to load them into the dumpsters. We had sandbagged and had everything off the floor way above the crest we expected,” says Rayborn, who manages CRPL information technology services with his colleague Green. The three-library consortium worked off CRPL servers, so everyone was down. The two IT men used the backup from the CRPL SIRSI system to get the circulation system up.

A silver lining

Everyone connected to CRPL learned from the flood. As board prexy Corrigan put it, “You have to be persevering, and our team was. It was hard not to see obstacles, and it would have been easy to give up, but we were successful by problem-solving, getting over or around the obstacles. We could have settled for less, even given things up, but with Tamara’s fabulous leadership, we didn’t.”

One thing CRPL learned from librarians who survived Hurricane Katrina: “Do not let people send you books.” “They still have semitrailers full of used books they don’t know what to do with,” reports DeVries. Instead, the library has set up a wish list on Amazon.com for books it can use right now in the active collection (the list is also linked to the library’s web site). Beyond that, however, the library needs money to help rebuild. Otherwise, the library’s Friends group is accepting donated books on the library’s behalf and aiding in getting them sorted.

The CRPL team never lets up. As Cedar Rapids city councilor Monica Vernon said, “The library is a beacon of hope.”

For that hope, that determination to recover and serve the people of Cedar Rapids, that courageous and effective effort to overcome disaster, the CRPL team wins a collective 2009 Librarian of the Year Award.

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ