The Katrina Chronicles, Part 1: Overall Tech Assessment

By Karen G. Schneider | Karen Schneider Head This is the first part in a series of postings about libraries and Katrina. After this post, I'm going to look close up at libraries that were affected by Katrina—either directly, such as the libraries in Mississippi and Louisiana damaged or closed by the storms and flooding, or indirectly, such as the libraries that increased or changed services in response to the sudden "Katrina Diaspora" that swept our country. I have some stories that will confirm your belief in libraries.

But for this post, I'm concentrating on the mile-high view of technology responses to Katrina, and from that perspective, the assessment is often an A for effort, but sometimes a C or lower for outcome.

I don't say this because I'm writing for an ALA blog, I say it because it's the indisputable truth: in terms of information about libraries and Katrina, ALA rocked.

Two Energizer bunnies drove the bulk of the efforts: Michael Dowling of the Chapter Relations Office, and George Eberhart of American Libraries magazine. George, in particular, was Mr. Timeliness, providing the first of many good posts about hurricane information about affected libraries and mass evacuations on August 31 (two days before Michael Brown, former FEMA director, would be surprised to hear about the evacuee situation in New Orleans). The Katrina news posts have been a great blend of news squibs, kibbles and bits shared by libraries, and photos that will give you uneasy dreams at night of black mold creeping, creeping up your library shelves.

However much I appreciate the quality and timeliness of ALA's information response, I am forced to take away one rock because the Katrina updates have been glommed together in one long daily post, rather than being bloggishly distributed through spoonfuls of updates available as separate entries and subscribable by RSS. That's not George's fault; it's that the ALA Web site lacks the ability to do something as basic to modern Web delivery as RSS (not that I've ever had any issue with the ALA Web site...).

When I examine the charitable giving response from ALA and state chapters, I am forced to pull back half the rock pile. Smooth, easy-to-use online giving mechanisms are important for two crass reasons. First, in charitable giving, particularly during crises, the race is to the swift, which is why you see the Red Cross muscling in so quickly. Second, people have short memories. I have already counted several days in which Hurricane Katrina was not mentioned on the front page of the New York Times—an index, to me, of subsiding national consciousness. People mean well, but particularly if you can't see or feel the reverberations of a disaster, after a while, it slides on the backburner of our multitasking brains. Particularly with a faltering economy and zooming gas prices, expecting people to dig up money again, weeks after the disaster, is asking a lot.

At the time of the storm, not just ALA, but several key state chapters, lacked the ability to solicit online donations. Given that many other ALA transactions are now handled online, from member voting to renewals to conferences, I was stunned that in 2005 I could find any library-related Web site, let alone our national association and several state chapters, asking for donations by check. (I write about four checks per year anyway, since online checking has eliminated the need for them. Don't pooh-pooh me as just another techy; 44 percent of all Americans now bank online.)

Keith Fiels, ALA's Executive Director, readily acknowledged to Council that he had learned not only did ALA not have an online giving tool in place for Katrina, they hadn't had one in place for December's tsunami, either. Props to Keith for his forthright response. However, I pull away a few more rocks from ALA's pile for taking a full 18 days after Keith's message to Council to implement an online donation tool. I realize that at ALA HQ, 18 days is practically warp speed, but in it was still an agonizingly long time to get it together for something that important.

But I give one rock back for ALA implementing what is the clearest Web page from ALA I've ever seen, with one quibble: it should have one weepy-teary Sally-Struthersish call-out box wrenching a few more bucks from us (with a suggested donation level starred) when we fill out the form.

As for the state chapters without online giving mechanisms, I bleed for them, but this is the problem: these online donation mechanisms need to be in place in advance (and—another theme that will come up in future posts—not on a sole server vulnerable to flooding). After the disaster, people are too busy evacuating or cleaning out the mud or whatever to build online donation mechanisms. We might not think about our Sally Struthers routines as part of disaster preparedness, but "How are we going to get the money we need to rebuild?" is not a bad question to build into our scenarios.

Next post: some savvy responses from librarians affected by Katrina, with some lessons-learned you need to heed. The following post: some of the best library-related response sites.