Leaving the Big Easy

I’m sitting in seat 12C of a Delta Airlines MD-88, mid-flight on an early AM flight out of New Orleans and trying to assemble my thoughts and feelings about ALA 2006. I think I’ll not see anything like it again. I’m sure not one person who attended this year can contest that the conference was for and about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Yes, there were sessions, there were committee meetings, there was vendor schwag, incredible food, and music. But behind the thin veneer of normalcy that seemed so desperately applied in anticipation of our attendance, there was the unmistakable hurt. There was injury in the hospitality, deep wounds that were betrayed by an endearing and truly genuine gratitude that I may never see again.

Leslie Burger, along with the Darien Public Library (CT) hosted a blogger bash on Saturday night at her suite in the New Orleans Hilton. But it wasn’t just a blogger’s bash, Leslie and Alan Gray (Darien) came up with the inspired idea to couple a blogger get-together with some folks from various Gulf Coast libraries. We heard from a number of them as they recounted the damage to their facilities and collections. But their problems extend beyond just physical damage. They have lost staff, lost revenue, but most of all, they have been presented with, as one director put it, “the biggest event” in their lifetimes–and most certainly their biggest challenge.

I would be remiss to not pass on their message of “send money, not books.” A number of New Orleans and Gulf Coast libraries have been inundated by used books from well-meaning people, but at this point, they have become a liability and simply pose more of a logistical problem because they cannot be used or processed. One library actually built a symbolic levy with all the books it has received. There are a number of ways to donate money to these (and many other) libraries–a simple Google search for “Katrina library donation” is a good start. You can donate directly to many of these libraries and you’ll know that every penny is being used to get them back up and running with the sole aim of serving their communities.

And speaking of community, Leslie Burger announced at her inaugural banquet that her theme, if you will, is libraries transform communities. A fitting message for her anointment and well to be delivered in such a host city. Leslie gave a firm nod to technology in her “five part plan” and the role it can play in drawing our communities together around the library. To my chagrin, I failed to bring even pen and paper to jot down some notes about her remarks. If I were to distill what I think about Leslie Burger, however, it would be that she is the perfect person for the job at the perfect time. I think she’ll leave the office of ALA president after having made some fundamental and profound changes. Thanks (again) to Darien for inviting me to the event, which was hopping, indeed, with a multi-generational flurry of Mo-town twist and zydeco.

I truly think that the locals were pleasantly surprised as the stereotype of the quiet librarian slipped away this past week. Mayor Nagin remarked on Saturday, librarians may “do it by the book,” as one printed t-shirt exclaimed, but some of us were not averse to sipping more than a few portable daiquiris in the French quarter!

Thanks also to the folks at Library Journal who put on a fabulous reception/luncheon for the Movers and Shakers. They tapped John Wood, a Microsoft exec who left an extremely lucrative career to build libraries for villages in third world countries. His talk was inspiring indeed, and reminded me of the importance of libraries, even in our own communities. Perhaps we are taken for granted when we’re around every day, but as John Wood, and the Gulf Coast librarians, show us, when we’re not around, our people lose an important mooring–libraries are so very essential to the health of community life. After Katrina, many people turned to libraries in their host communities to get information about their homes and to connect with their families and loved ones. If it were not for the libraries, where would those people have gone? John’s book, an account of his work getting Room to Read up and running, is called “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” and is due out soon.

And so, above everything else, ALA New Orleans was about being reminded of why we do what we do. I’m slipping through the jet-stream right now, on my way home to an unbroken house and my beautiful family, so I want to acknowledge the many people who played host to the largest conference since Katrina. Every night, they return home to an entirely different situation than the one I’m on my way to right now. The residents of New Orleans may very well never forget the deluge. The painful memories will certainly outlast the stain of the high-water mark, but the decision not to move the 2006 conference will always be a jewel in the history of librarianship.

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