New Orleans Public Library Nearly Three Years After Hurricane Katrina

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By Ronald Gauthier, branch manager for the Gwinnett County Library System in Atlanta, Georgia.

Originally published in the May/June 2008 BCALA Newsletter, a publication of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association

The severity of Hurricane Katrina’s impact reverberated throughout the city of New Orleans. Submerged property and toppled trees and automobiles are a testament to its ferocity. Very few buildings or homes were spared its devastation and one institution, the once vibrant New Orleans Public Library System (NOPL), underwent the most horrid destruction. The twelve-branch system experienced damage to all of its buildings, some of them, particularly the Martin Luther King Branch in the Lower Ninth Ward and the Smith Regional Branch in the Lakefront area, sustained overwhelming torrents that completely destroyed the entrails of the buildings. Others suffered water and mold damage and a few were salvageable, but nothing really emerged physically intact.

As the world watched beleaguered New Orleanians slowly trekking back into the city weeks after Hurricane Katrina, television cameras caught peripheral shots of library buildings besotted by putrid water, debris-laden and disconsolate. It would be painstaking weeks, months, and years before many of them reopened. The Main Branch at 219 Loyola Street was the first to reopen to a critically decreased staff as massive city layoffs decimated its workforce. Rica Trigs, Coordinator of Administration, and Valencia Hawkins, Head of the African American Resource Center, both at NOPL, were two of the earliest to return to work and face the monumental task of restructuring and redefining in a system in disarray, while confronting rebuilding challenges in their own lives at the same time. A representative from the BCALA Newsletter interviewed them for this story.

Valencia Hawkins was employed at NOPL for nearly twenty years when she became part of a massive layoff of city employees. This was especially painful for a professional who had begun her career at NOPL in 1985 at the Latter Branch Library, before moving up to branch manager of the Napoleon and Alvar Branch, respectively. She later attended graduate school and returned to create the library’s African American Resource Center (AARC). She was recalled in January of 2006 and began supervising a four-person staff that serviced three divisions on the second floor of the Main Library in downtown New Orleans. She is now one of only two African American librarians employed at NOPL, and again heads the African American Resource Center.

Gauthier: What was it like to return after a layoff to a system that had buildings in ruins and a severely reduced staff size?

Hawkins: We barely had staff to cover the divisions and worked from a centralized location. At this time the library was serving as a FEMA disaster recovery center and we were bombarded with faxing requests and computer needs. By the summer, I became heavily involved with working with the Martin Luther King School staff to have that facility reopened in the Lower Ninth Ward. Our own King Branch Library is housed in that facility. Additionally, I served as a liaison between the Y Learning Center and the library when it found a home in the Main Library in order to provide its adult literacy program to New Orleans residents needing the service. This proved to be fruitful for the library in more ways than one. I recognized the assistance being given by Americorps volunteers to the Learning Center and sought the assistance of the Americorps volunteers for other areas of the library, including my own. I also worked with First Book to plan the national celebration of its millionth donation to the Gulf State Library Project. I was responsible for placing First Book donations in the library system.

Gauthier: When did you see an increase in manpower at NOPL? When did the other African American library professionals return?

Hawkins: NOPL was able to have some staff return under Louisiana’s Job 1 program. This did not return staff to their same salaries but did provide them with a job during the crisis. Presently, the only other African American librarian in the system besides me is Lavon Phillips. She came back to NOPL in March of 2006 under the Job 1 Program of Louisiana. In May of 2006, she was rehired by NOPL as a staff person in our Automated Service Division. It was not until August of 2006 that the divisions in the Main Library were able to be decentralized as more staff was hired back. Library Associate JoAnn Allen returned to the AARC at this time. Currently, we have one African American working in administration, Rica Trigs, and she is an unclassified worker serving as the liaison between library administration, city government, and the Library Board. She was recently named Chief Operating Officer of NOPL. Geraldine Harris continued to serve as the Assistant City Librarian in the months following Katrina. She became the Interim Director of the library in July of 2006 when City Librarian Bill Johnson resigned. Geraldine Harris resigned in November of 2006.

Gauthier: What are some of the programs you were able to revitalize and offer to the community after your return?

Hawkins: We established an after-school program for middle school students. We were able to coordinate our efforts with several local health agencies and were able to focus our 2007 Black history programming on health issues related to African Americans. We provided a number of summer programs and our annual Tom Dent Literary Festival in November of 2007. It was through this program that we were able to have you return to the library to promote your latest work alongside veteran actor and Sesame Street Dad, Roscoe Orman, who also had ties to this city through his work in the Free Southern Theatre during the 1960s. Throughout this time we also ordered over 500 titles for the King Branch Library, which reopened in October of 2007. More than ten years earlier, retired librarian Henrietta Kinney and I had the responsibility of doing collection development for the branch when it originally opened in January of 2006.

Gauthier: Can you tell us about the current state of other NOPL branches? How are some of the other library systems doing in the city?

Hawkins: We currently have twelve library branches open. Two are inside school buildings, namely the Martin Luther King Branch and the Einstein Branch. The three regional libraries of the New Orleans Public Library are either closed or functioning from trailers or bookmobiles. Throughout the city, there is a shortage of librarians within the school system, whether the school is a charter school, public or private institution. The AARC has worked with library staff members at Joseph Craig and Albert Wicker elementary schools as well as Sarah T Reed High School. On the university level, Southern University at New Orleans has not returned to its library building, yet has managed to provide library service on its temporary campus and maintain its Center for African and African American Studies. The libraries of Dillard and Xavier Universities are operating fully. Delgado Community College had substantial damage to its library and had to store an overflow of their materials in a building on another part of their campus. The Amistad Research Center, like the New Orleans Public Library, is also short-staffed and in need of trained archivists or librarians.

Rica Trigs was appointed Chief Operating Officer of NOPL in 2008. She has been with NOPL for ten years, starting as Executive Assistant to the Board/Board Liaison, Coordinator of Administration, and then her current position. She was also interviewed about her experiences returning to NOPL after the Katrina disaster.

Gauthier: What was it like when you returned to NOPL after Hurricane Katrina?

Trigs: It was a very different experience, much like that of the city itself. Just as I missed family and friends in my personal life, I missed co-workers in my professional life. We returned with 19 staff members of whom we called “NOPL Recovery”. Each day presented new challenges and we responded with creative – some may say survival techniques. Our administrative team would work a portion of the day in their assigned capacity and the other half would be spent in public service. In the midst of all the challenges, I did see opportunity for NOPL to recover to its full potential.

Gauthier: How did your role evolve as the redevelopment of the library unfolded?

Trigs: The role of the NOPL has changed tremendously in the economy of the city. As community-based plans and developers’ projects took shape, they all included libraries. The citizens of New Orleans and outside interests all realized the true value of libraries in the redevelopment of our city. Every plan had a library. In our new role as economic drivers, we had leverage and opportunity. The Library Board was committed to moving away from a piecemeal system in order to establish a system that was purposed and operationally functional. This vision initiated the master planning process. Through this process, I became the primary contact between governmental entities and community groups. This allowed me to use a skill set in governmental relations and public administration from my education and previous work experience. I was truly loving my new responsibilities to strategically place NOPL in a position to become a model urban library system and an example of institutional recovery.

Gauthier: Can you briefly tell us about the library master plan? How was it conceived?

Trigs: The master plan actually has two key components: service models for the various areas of the city and the library’s new identity. The plan completely spells out the configuration of library sizes and services as well as the phasing of these facilities over 25 years. It was deliberate to be economic drivers in some areas. The identity is equally as important. It clearly articulates who NOPL is. We are different from any other library system in the country because New Orleans is different from any other city in the world. We celebrate this uniqueness in the plan. We will have branches dedicated to music, food, and architecture and as always we have a little lagniappe – a health and wellness branch. Each branch will celebrate New Orleans culture and literature with a core New Orleans collection at every NOPL location. Our libraries will be a place where locals and tourist can go to learn and celebrate our culture. The process evolved out of a need to be better. There were surveys (staff and public), creative brainstorming, board retreats, information sessions with planners and supervisors, and public input sessions citywide. We used nationally recognized library planners and local architects to craft our vision.

Gauthier: In your current role of Chief Operating Officer for NOPL, what do you hope to accomplish?

Trigs: My explanation to this new appointment is that I have been charged with the task of insuring that this master plan lives and takes shape. This is not a shelf document. We have already planned the work; now I have to work the plan. In a position that is new to library systems because NOPL has been faced with a situation that is new to libraries, I am asked how does this affect the library director/head librarian position. The head librarian is responsible for the day to day operations of the library system and to ensure the library’s collection and services are meeting the public need. My role is very much outside of the walls of the library. NOPL’s Rebuild is a $650,000,000 endeavor with community, political, and economic interest. A week in the life of NOPL’s CEO is meetings with elected officials, the office of recovery management, two development groups, a partner organization, the public relations team, editorial board meetings, etc. There are two very separate directives. Overall, I want every one in New Orleans to love their libraries and not from a distance. I hope to establish inviting, comfortable, and esthetically appealing spaces with programs and services that touch every segment of our community and beyond.

Gauthier: Can you offer any advice to libraries starting a rebuilding project after a disaster?

Trigs: My advice is not to be reactive but proactive. There will be no shortage of ideas and short term solutions. Do not take the easy path of least resistance, but do what is best for the long-term growth and development of your community. Do not be afraid to be different or think “outside of the box”. Get outside experts advice but own your destiny.

Ronald Gauthier, author of Prey for Me: A New Orleans Mystery and Hard Time on the Bayou, was Branch Manager for the New Orleans Public Library system. He is now a Branch Manager for the Gwinnett County Library System in Atlanta Georgia.