library site visits

Contact: Deborah Bloom
Manager, Campaign for America’s Libraries

For Immediate Release
April 5, 2006

ALA leaders tour Gulf Coast libraries;

find spirit of rebuilding, much work still to be done

In honor of National Library Week, American Library Association (ALA) President Michael Gorman, ALA President-Elect Leslie Burger and ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels toured a number of libraries ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, learned about their rebuilding efforts and honored their work.

"We all read about what had happened in the Gulf Coast. Still, we were shocked by the devastation in New Orleans and Mississippi and the destruction that these libraries endured," said Gorman.

The first site visit the group made was to the Benjamin Franklin High School library, part of a public charter school that serves as the leading college preparatory program in the state of Louisiana, according to Principal Carol Christen, who spoke to ALA leaders at length about the plight of the school and its library. The high school is very close to one of the levees that was breached; homes in the neighborhood had eight to 10 feet of water.
Christen said she hoped that the school library would move from its temporary location on the second floor to its original first-floor space by mid-August in time for the beginning of the next school year.

School librarian Idella Washington noted that they lost two-thirds of the books in the collection and had damage to equipment and other materials. But she remains optimistic: "We have had lots of help and donations from around the country. We even had a group of college students come and help shelve books - wet and dry."

When asked by Burger what they needed most, she commented that they need volunteers once the library starts to get back in shape. She also thanked ALA for all of its efforts.

"We are so appreciative of ALA being here today and so grateful for your donation to the Louisiana Library Association. It makes all the difference."

The group then visited with Dr. Mary Penny, library director at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), a historically black university. The library is currently housed in two double-wide trailers, after having been moved to SUNO's Baton Rouge campus and then to a middle school in the aftermath of the hurricane. According to Penny, the library sustained six feet of water and is among 11 campus buildings that have yet to be cleaned and renovated. Four hundred trailers are serving faculty, staff and students while campus officials assess the damage.

"We lost $4 million worth of books, as well as 23 computers and 11 printers," Penny said. "The first floor of the library is totally unsalvageable, including our reference, reserve, and entire African-American and Afro-French collections. It just breaks my heart to see everything that was lost."

Despite losing everything in the hurricane herself, Penny too was optimistic and noted that ALA's Adopt-A-Library Program has been "quite beneficial." Eight libraries have adopted Southern University's library and are contributing money, books and other materials.

"The amount of rebuilding that has gone on since the hurricanes and the amount of cooperation and non-governmental support libraries in the Gulf Coast have received is truly amazing," said Burger.

Gorman, Burger and Fiels spent a considerable part of Monday afternoon visiting the New Orleans Public Library, including the Central Library, Alvar Street branch, Martin Luther King branch and Children's Resource Center. Led by Library Board President Tania Tetlow and Assistant Library Director Geraldine Harris, the group learned that the city had to lay off 90 percent of the library staff, which only left a dozen librarians and few others to run the day-to-day operations. Today, 30 percent of the staff is working. Only five of the 13 branches are currently open, and they are on limited hours.

"Our librarians could have easily filled out FEMA forms like everyone else, but they were determined to reopen because they knew how desperately our residents needed online access, in particular, to begin piecing their life back together," said Tetlow.

The computer technology center at the Central Library suffered the most damage, with windows blown out and the room open to the wind for a whole week. Tetlow also noted that, remarkably, the library's archives in the basement and sub-basement managed to survive.

The Alvar Street Branch was described to the group by Harris as the least damaged and the one they hope will be up and running by the ALA Annual Conference, June 22-28. She and Tetlow noted that "ALA's coming to New Orleans is not only important for the city, but an impetus to keep us moving forward." A historic, art-deco building, Alvar serves an adjacent school, is close to a number of functioning and gentrifying neighborhoods and is especially important because of its proximity to the devastated Ninth Ward, which the group also toured. The Martin Luther King branch, which the group looked at next, sustained the most damage. When the group arrived, they found giant piles of wet and muddy books, furniture and discarded materials in the front yard of the school of which the library is a part. Inside the building they found collapsed shelving and mold completely covering the walls and ceiling. The last visit was to the Children's Resource Center, which ALA members will help renovate as part of a service project during the ALA Annual Conference in June.

New Orleans Public Library has initiated a major fundraising campaign to help it rebuild. "Our entire library system was underfunded to begin with, running on a budget of only $8 million. Today the budget is $3 million," Tetlow added. "Our challenge now is to seek funding from people who are not used to helping pay for operating expenses. The good news is that there is a lot of interest out there."

Yesterday, the contingent traveled to Mississippi to tour the joint public/school library in Pearlington and the Waveland Public Library, both of which are part of the Hancock County Library System. Gorman met a group of trustees and officials at the site of the destroyed Waveland branch. He presented a $100,000 check to Mississippi Library Association (MLA) President Susan Cassagne and Mississippi Library Commission Executive Director Sharman Smith, nearly tripling the amount of funding for the "Rebuild Mississippi Libraries Fund."
That fund, established by MLA, the Mississippi Library Commission and the Friends of Mississippi Libraries, will be used to rebuild affected public, school and academic libraries.

"The fact that ALA leadership is here in Mississippi means so much to us," said Cassagne. "We are very appreciative of this generous donation and the commitment that ALA has made to help libraries in our state and in other hurricane-ravaged areas rebuild. We could never do this alone."

Before the storms. Pearlington served 2000 residents, adults as well as 125 students at Charles B. Murphy Elementary School. Only half of those students have returned, and they are being bussed 30 miles away to attend school. Described by Library Director Prima Plauché as "a beautiful library...a community center to an insulated, isolated community," Pearlington lost all of its contents, though the building is still standing.

Waveland didn't fare as well. Just a quarter of a mile from the beach, it was completely destroyed, as was the entire community of Waveland which covered 13.5 miles of coastline and had 7,200 residents before the hurricanes. Today, only 2000 of those residents remain. All but two homes were demolished by the storm surge. Everyone is living in FEMA trailers.

"We are so appreciative of the outpouring of support, but we need our colleagues around the county to know that this is a long-term disaster," said Smith. "We are far away from books at this point - what we need is money. Folks won't be back for months, maybe years. Please don't forget that. Please don't forget us."

Mary Edmond, president of the Friends of Mississippi Libraries, added that Friends group from Hawaii to Connecticut have responded, as well as generous individuals. "We've had gifts as small as $5 and as big as $10,000," Edmond said. "We are truly grateful, but we need to keep the fund going because we have such a long way to go."

As he presented the check to Waveland staff and members of the community who turned out to greet him and his colleagues to say thank you, Gorman was very moved by the destruction he saw around him.

"We are thrilled to have been able to donate $200,000 from the ALA Katrina Relief Fund to the Louisiana and Mississippi Library Associations during the last week. But it's clear to me and to my colleagues that there is more to be done and more that we can do," added Gorman.
"I hope that by being here and by providing visibility for the great need these libraries have, we continue to generate funding so that we can provide another check to these libraries during our Annual Conference in June."

To date, ALA has helped to match over 300 libraries across the country with libraries in the Gulf region through its "Adopt a Library" program. ALA also has raised more than $300,000 thus far for hurricane relief. More than 500 people already have committed to work on service projects while attending ALA's upcoming Annual Conference in New Orleans.

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