Librarians win praise for hurricane relief efforts
Librarians had an opportunity to show their true colors in 2006 as never before, but it was an opportunity no one would have wished for.
Some 17,000 members of the profession and library supporters ventured to New Orleans in June for the ALA’s 2006 Annual Conference, the first major convention to be held there following the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita the previous autumn. The fact that the association decided — within weeks after the storms and under extreme time pressure — to stick with its plan to meet in the Big Easy boosted local morale and provided an estimated $20-million economic shot in the arm for the flood-soaked city.
The ALA also established the Hurricane Katrina Library Relief Fund, which raised more than a half-million dollars in donations; the funds were distributed to libraries through relief efforts of ALA chapters in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The ALA Chapter Relations Office set up an Adopt a Library Program that matched more than 300 libraries nationwide with libraries in the region that needed support; and the ALA Washington Office pushed for federal support to help the libraries rebuild.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $12.2 million for bookmobiles and temporary mini-branches, and the Bush–Clinton Katrina Fund, established by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, contributed $5 million toward the reconstruction of eight libraries in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Residents who had fled New Orleans used libraries nationwide to connect with loved ones and obtain emergency information and assistance.
Finally, during the convention itself, about 1,000 attendees volunteered for two days of “roll-up-your-sleeves” work at more than 20 library locations. One standout project was the “extreme makeover” of the Children’s Resource Center, a historic Carnegie library branch of the New Orleans Public Library; Highsmith Inc., Bretford Inc., Milliken Floor Covering and many other vendors contributed furnishings and technical expertise. School libraries, supported by a grant of almost $1 million from retailer Dollar General, played a significant role in rebuilding in communities. And a branch restored by Library Journal reopened during the convention.
The extensive media coverage — from local papers to USA Today, National Public Radio and Money magazine — that resulted let the world know that librarians put their money where their social conscience is. During the conference itself, the story was covered on national television broadcasts such as CNN Sunday, NBC Nightly News and MSNBC news, which meant that more than 14 million viewers saw reports of library rebuilding efforts on hundreds of local TV stations. In addition, more than 350 newspaper articles and radio broadcasts covered ALA efforts to help the Gulf Coast recover. As the New York Times wrote: “The nation’s librarians proved themselves an intrepid lot this week, venturing into this limping city where other conventioneers have feared to tread.”
By August, 62 percent of the libraries in metropolitan New Orleans that were open before Katrina had opened their doors once again, according to the Brookings Institution’s Katrina Index. This contrasted sharply with other elements of the city’s infrastructure; the Greater New Orleans Community Data Centerreported in February 2007 that 56 percent of the city’s public schools and 69 percent of its child care centers remained closed, and that only 17 percent of the city’s buses were running. Nevertheless, more than 20 public libraries in Louisiana were still closed early in 2007, and many public, school and academic libraries in Mississippi and Louisiana continued to operate out of trailers and other temporary facilities.
The ALA’s efforts on behalf of Gulf Coast libraries are ongoing.
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