HCL Librarians Volunteer in New Orleans

HCL staff members (clockwise from upper left) Daryl Boone, Kathy Rutter, George Clark, and Lynne Schmelz shared their experiences in New Orleans with co-workers at a recent Friday lunch meeting.

August 18, 2006 - During the ALA conference held June 22-28 in New Orleans, hundreds of librarians donned yellow "Libraries Build Communities" T-shirts in preparation for volunteer work organized by ALA in the devastated city. They spent two days working, painting, sorting, and repairing at local libraries and other venues. A number of HCL librarians were among those who gave their time to help revitalize the city, and several described their New Orleans experiences to co-workers at a recent lunch meeting.

Daryl Boone, Division Head, HCL Technical Services, was one of the volunteers. "The way the volunteer stuff worked is you could do it all day Friday or Tuesday," she explained. "ALA had a huge list of stuff you could choose from, including library and community items. I signed up for a little parish library book sale, but it didn't go through—so I just said put me wherever you need people."

Boone ended up at the Second Harvest Food Bank, where she and 24 other librarians were asked to sort food donated by individuals, organizations, and restaurants. It was a typical hot, humid New Orleans day and the food bank had no air-conditioning, just huge fans.

"It was great for librarians because we got to organize," said Boone. High school students had volunteered the week before. "We were challenged to do better, and we did."

Boone also helped assemble "lagniappe packs" for children—bags filled with child-friendly, non-perishable food that kids can take home for the weekend to ensure they receive proper nutrition, even when school is out.

Boone called the experience very rewarding and highlighted the food bank's importance over the past year. Second Harvest distributes food to nearly 200 disaster agencies in greater New Orleans. Within 48 hours of Katrina, it had relocated to a vacant Walmart in Baker, Louisiana, and within two weeks, it had distributed three million pounds of disaster relief food. By May, that number was 44 million pounds.

In the staff room, Boone got a chance to talk about the situation to regular food bank employees, New Orleans residents. "I didn't talk to anyone who didn't get welled up talking about it," she said. According to them, mail delivery had been restored just a week before.

Boone also participated the next day in a 5K road race to benefit the Katrina Higher Education Assistance Fund for various colleges and universities in the area. The race was supposed to go off at 8:30 a.m. was postponed an hour—when it was already really hot—to accommodate the many last-minute registrants.

Kathy Rutter, Division Head, HCL Technical Services, volunteered along with six others at the Newcomb College Archives/Nadine Vorhoff Library, part of Tulane University. According to Rutter, the night before Katrina hit the Newcomb archivist worked until 11:30 pm, wrapping shelves in plastic and trying to protect the collections. "Even though there was a lot of mold damage," said Rutter, "the upper shelves did well." Furniture, on the other hand, was destroyed.

A conservation company had previously frozen the damaged materials, and the librarians worked with the big archival boxes just back from the freezer to transcribe the labels, which indicated what was in each box. They contained, said Rutter, "everything from the records of the Registrar's office from the turn of the 20th century, to collections of menus from New Orleans restaurants in the thirties, to individual students' collections of term papers, scrapbooks, etc."

Once the volunteers had transcribed the labels, they entered titles and accession numbers into an online database, which will allow the library to put the archival boxes into a logical order and connect them to the location on the library database.

George Clark, Environmental Resources Librarian and Curator, Social Sciences Program, described his visits to a number of damaged houses and libraries during his time in New Orleans. Among them, he saw two houses that had flooded to the ceiling and hadn't been touched since the hurricane. They lay in utter ruin. "It's hard to intuit what they looked like without being there," said Clark. "It's also hard to imaging the impact on people's lives."

Clark displayed a telling photo of a damaged school library with a sign out front that asked "Looking for a public school?" He added that a lot of schools seemed to be opening as charter schools, perhaps for the sake of flexibility, he suggested.

He described another library in the Algiers neighborhood that didn't actually flood when Katrina hit, but the hurricane did damage its roof so that when it rained, everything inside was ruined. That library now functions as a sorting station for incoming book donations.

On a more positive note, Clark described a trailer he visited that had recently been set up as an interim library with internet access, books, and play sets to occupy toddlers.

"I found the tourist part of the city open and pleasant," concluded Clark. "If you have a chance to go, do."

To wrap up the meeting, Lynne Schmelz, Librarian for the Sciences and Librarian of the Cabot and Tozzer Libraries, told the group about an ACRL-organized field trip she attended in New Orleans. The tour was lead by Stephen A. Nelson, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane, a "real in-the-field academic," said Schmelz.

The tour took a look at what went wrong in New Orleans from a geological and engineering standpoint that led to the flooding of 80 percent of the city. Among the spots the group visited were the 17th  St, Orleans, and Industrial Canals, and they listened as Nelson explained that there are still misconceptions, in and outside of New Orleans, about the flooding. Schmelz said that, according to Nelson, "This was an engineering disaster, not natural."

Although there is an incredible amount of work left yet to rebuild New Orleans, the volunteer librarians made a difference at more than 20 locations throughout the city, including many schools and libraries. According to American Libraries Online, the ALA magazine, donors have made contributions to library recovery efforts with corporate and private funds totaling more than $20 million, and ALA has given complimentary registrations to 425 ALA members and chapter members in counties and parishes where libraries were destroyed or damaged.

Page Last Reviewed: May 12, 2009