Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Orleans PL's Gift Book Hell

On Tuesday, several WebJunction staff members and I participated with hundreds of other ALA conference goers in the association's "Libraries Build Communities" Day to assist the New Orleans Public Library. (Chrystie Hill was in Friday's team, and got photographed with ALA President Leslie Burger.) We were assigned to sort donated books at the Algiers Branch Library. The branch was spared the worst of the storm and the levee break flooding, but Katrina exploited a few small flaws in the building's roof and waterlogged the ceiling. The ceiling proceeded to collapse, ruining everything underneath.

This day helped me see the best and the worst of librarians.

The best? Hundreds and hundreds of yellow T-shirt clad librarians (and, in our case, at least one public library trustee and one library spouse) filling the atrium of the Morial Convention Center on a warm morning, waiting to head out to their assignments. They --- we --- were filled with a desire to be useful, to try to show that we cared enough to extend our stays by a day or skip some meetings or liquid lunches in order to help.

The worst? Well, keep reading...

Apparently, some time in late February or early March, a viral e-mail was set loose on the world, claiming that the library needed books, and to send everything you could. See this or this for examples. The donations poured in as if the book levee had been breached.

Having spent six hours in one of the places where these donations were stored, I can tell you that most of it was pretty sad stuff. Now please note that I am NOT criticizing the gifts that some of the vendors made. There were a number of boxes of clean, new materials from one large publisher, for example, that looked to be really good. (The publisher has not talked about this gift on its web site that I could find, so I'm not using its name here.)

And I'm not even criticizing the civilians (non-librarians) who may have honestly believed that the library and its clientele could use a 1960 edition of The Golden Encyclopedia, or marked up mid-1970s physics textbooks, or books on how to lose weight. They meant well, and were responding to what probably seemed like a logical request.

But there were also boxes of books that had been sent in by libraries, including some pretty well known libraries. And what was in those boxes was a disgrace. Outdated, dirty, abused, ugly, useless...basically trash. It was as if these libraries were afraid that someone was going to look into their trash bin and find out they were throwing away printed materials. So instead, they shoveled them into boxes and threw them at New Orleans.

What could they have been thinking? Instead of helping, this deluge of tripe used staff time that could have gone into restoring service.

I'm sure that some libraries and schools gave good, usable materials to New Orleans Public Library, and I know many groups raised money. But 99% of what we found in that cavernous building would not have made decent kindling.

I came away with one firm conclusion. I am changing my will so that my book collection gets sold as part of my estate instead of being donated to a library. I realized that I don't own anything that's really worth being contributed to a library, and like most libraries, they need my money a hell of a lot more than they need my used books!

Incidentally, the library has an FAQ on its site about donations now. But as one of the NOPL staff told us during the day, she expects that e-mail requesting donations to keep circulating on the web as long as that chestnut about the dying boy collecting the postcards.


K.G. Schneider said...

I have pictures of many of the donations up on my Flickr account. Even with the best books, at donations flowing in at 12,000 a month and almost no staff left to process them, this has created a huge nightmare. Unprocessed books are expensive. Does anyone not get that?

Anonymous said...

great comment. After years of being the dumping ground for outdated "donated" materials libs should know better. Thanks for blogging about his.

Anonymous said...

I first experienced this when I was a parochial school librarian and my library was destroyed during Hurricane Elena on Labor Day, 1985. After a few months, I thought if I ever saw another National Geographic magazine again I'd go crazy. People meant well, but that small library barely had room for just a few years of any magazine title, and I don't know why people thought we needed so many National Geographics!