The Big Easy Revisited

New Orleans represents how libraries rebuild communities

September 27, 2011

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Returning to New Orleans for the 2011 American Library Association Annual Conference this year was both rewarding and emotional for many of us.

Five years earlier, we traveled to Louisiana less than a year after the devastating hurricanes and massive flooding from failure of the levies. At that time, we were welcomed with much more than southern hospitality. Ours was the first major conference to return to New Orleans after the devastation. Other organizations canceled their plans and relocated to other venues . . . but not ALA. We knew our return to NOLA could be important for its comeback. In 2006, ALA’s leadership was convinced that New Orleans would be ready to welcome us . . . and so they were.

We were treated like VIPs. Our decision to be there was not just appreciated by civic officials and the convention and visitors bureau; it was clear from the moment we arrived that the resilient people of New Orleans cared deeply, and they made sure we knew it. Taxi drivers thanked me personally—and I am sure many of you who were there—for coming. I found myself overtipping, hoping to do my part to pump money back into the economy. Volunteer greeters opened doors at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as we arrived each day, saying “Welcome to New Orleans!” and “Thank you for coming!”

It was exhilarating to see the positive attitude of people who were determined to make their city even better than before. All around us, we could see retail stores boarded up or simply closed; windows in upper stories of office buildings, blown out by the storms, not yet replaced; and areas away from the French Quarter tragically washed away. In one ironic twist of fate, reservations at many of New Orleans’ great restaurants were, for the first time, easy to make.

Flash forward to June 2011. The city welcomed us once again with open arms. What was even more remarkable was that they remembered “the librarians” from five years earlier. Taxi drivers and service people in general would say things such as, “Oh, we love you librarians. You were the first ones to come back to New Orleans after the floods.” I even had a taxi driver who had only been driving for three years but who knew about “the librarians.”

At this year’s 0pening General Session, NOLA’s Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke such warm words about our place in the hearts and minds of the people of New Orleans. He also talked about rebuilding the public library system much stronger than the one they lost. Other libraries were rebuilt too. Julie Walker, director of ALA’s American Association of School Librarians, visited the area a few years after the flooding and witnessed 50 rebuilt school libraries in the Gulf Region. One of the most interesting comments, Walker noted, was that the kids were reading more: the same titles that were on the shelf before the hurricane, but they were motivated by the colorful covers and clean pages. Academic libraries and special collections, such as those at Tulane University, had also been severely damaged and then restored.

Once again, NOLA offered a great venue for ALA’s diverse and rich array of programs, exhibits, and Association business meetings with 20,000 attendees. This city in which we chose to meet reminded us why we feel so rewarded by the work we do. Gulf Coast libraries had been restored because they were seen as essential for learning and for life. Libraries helped rebuild communities and restore hope, even when people could not imagine that life could ever get back to normal.

MOLLY RAPHAEL is the retired director of Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library and the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, D. C. Visit mollyraphael.org; email: molly@mollyraphael.org.