Friday, June 30, 2006


I attended Leslie Berger's presidentially-hosted blogger bash at ALA last Saturday evening, where she jointly hosted New Orleans Public Librarians and their stories about the impact of Katrina on their libraries, communities, and working lives. Direct quote from a NOPL in attendance:

My arms are getting tired from lifting box after box of old, outdated World Book Encyclopedia volumes into the dumpster out front. We have no place to store these books. Please, go back and tell your colleagues and communities: we don't need any more books.

I agree with George about the best and the worst of our profession coming out for New Orleans. Librarians, myself included, can fall into a trap of assuming that they already know what their patrons need, purchasing/collecting it for them, and even organizing it neatly on adjustable shelves. The piles of unwanted books in New Orleans are a lesson to us all for our everyday practice in libraries. We must question our own assumptions and avoid the temptation that we already know what's good and right for our customers (and, as in this case, colleagues). We must ask our communities what they need and want. We must listen to their answers, and then enter a dialog about how we can meet needs (and create impact or change) together with them.

Although my volunteer day on Friday (at the Children's Resource Center) was a bit more positive in that we were moving books that the library actually needed and retained (the library was completely renovated over the course of the weekend and they reopened on Monday - pics to be posted on Flickr soon...), I came away from the experience and these stories extremely humbled, and with a renewed commitment to seek information before I make assumptions, form opinions, or take action.

Many thanks to the NOPL's at Leslie's reception whose experiences served as a catalyst for many of us in NO this weekend. I am hopeful that we can - all of us - carry this humility, and these lessons, into our library practice - even (or perhaps especially) when we do not face nearly as challenging a workday as our colleagues rebuilding there.


Andy Havens said...

I'm going to be just slightly "meta contrarian" for the sake of it, and because it is in my nature... and raise a question -- in all sincere, honest questioningness -- just becaus I am truly wondering about something, in reference to the "stop sending books," thing.

Not being a librarian, and not being in New Orleans, I have to agree with their assessment (and yours, and George's) that the libraries there don't need these books. And it sounds like a monumental pain. The libraries, yes, could probably use more money as donations for rebuilding, if people wanted to help out. There are analogs in other historic relief efforts where people "rolled bandages" for soldiers out of materials that were totally inappropriate, and wasted materials that could have been used in different war efforts. People want to help sometimes, and are just misguided.

But here's my question: lots of local people -- patrons of the libraries there -- I'm sure, lost tons and tons of personal books in the flooding. Books, as we know more than any other group, are often deeply meaningful personal connections to our pasts, thoughts, dreams, etc. Would it be possible -- and, again in all sincere ignorance, because I truly have no idea if this is yet another "bad ideea from someone out there who has no idea what's going on down there on the ground" -- to take all the books that aren't wanted by the library and put them somewhere for the people of NO to come and take to replace their own personal stocks? A "free library sale?"

If the books are *all* just crap, well... OK. They're just crap. I mean, nobody wants a 1970's encyclopedia or outdated text books. That's just wrong, and sending it to a library is just dumb. Yeah. But if any of it is OK stuff that the *library* doesn't *need*, but that its users might want... I heard from many OCLCers who came back from NO that there are still lots of stores unopened or at less-than-full occupancy. A "free book shop" might bring in traffic for a merchant willing to come and heave those books into his/her unused space. The library gets the free labor of having the unwanted stuff carted away and gets some more good press, a merchant gets boatloads of free promo items, and local library users (and others) get to replenish their personal book stocks.

I really don't know; it is a suggestion with a huge "tell me if I'm being an idiot" sign painted on the front, and George knows me well enough to know that I can take a straight out, "You're an idiot, Andy" from him. Ready... aim...

George said...

Lots of the books that were donated were being shipped to FEMA relief centers and given away to people who had lost personal collections. So they weren't all being shipped off to recycling centers or landfills (although I think if all the books could have been buried, it might have raised the city above sea level). What we were doing in the Algers branch was sorting the books into three groups: those that could be resold to make some money for the library; those to be distributed free; and those to be pulped.

But the folks in New Orleans estimated that they had received over a million donated books. There is no way even with the best of intentions that this many books can be handled. Even running a free shop in the middle of the devastation would be an not-insignificant task.

Chrystie said...

Even running a free shop in the middle of the devastation would be an not-insignificant task.

I think that says it all. It's without awareness of the realities of the devastation, and what it really means to be "rebuilding", that we sent the books in the first place. There is no place to store them. There is no "bandwidth" to organize even a plan for giving them away.

Who knew? I didn't. And I guess that's the lesson I learned: be informed, ask people what they need, don't assume. Even if our intentions are stellar, we can end up doing something totally not helpful, maybe even making the situation worse.

I heard of one story where people in a NJ community who had done a book drive (not knowing that the books were not needed) learned that they had actually done something not helpful so they put up a public art installation made out of the books - a symbolic levy - and raised 16,000 for the libraries in NO. There's always a way to turn things around...