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System Director’s Report:

June 2006


ALA Conference

I just returned from the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans and it was an experience I will not soon forget. The final attendance of 16,964 was slightly under the prior record low of 17,482 for the SARS affected ALA conference in Toronto in 2003. However, ALA was the first big conference held in the city since the Katrina and Rita hurricanes and was big news for the city of New Orleans. Banners and signs that said “We’re jazzed you’re here” greeted us. The waiters, cab drivers, hotel and restaurant staff and city officials worked hard to make us feel welcome. I heard “Are you one of the librarians? Thanks for coming, thanks for being here,” with almost every interaction I had. We were told that representatives from more than 50 other conferences were there to observe how smoothly things went in order to make decisions about holding their own conferences later in the year.

Representing Wisconsin on the ALA Council was my main focus at the conference, but I also helped celebrate the 100th birthday of the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Science with great food, music, conversation and laughter with other Wisconsin librarians. I met many new people from all over the country and had discussions ranging from the various approaches states use to handle interlibrary loan to how libraries are introducing new audio formats.

Though I missed the appearance of the First Lady, I was able to hear several of the other big-name speakers, almost all of whom were also selling their new books. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, among other things, that “The library is the best bargain on the face of the earth.” I suspect she got that idea by following one of the SCLS delivery vans. Cokie Roberts was very engaging as she shared research for her upcoming book on the history of American women during the time of the revolution and the writing of the constitution.

Anderson Cooper, the author of New York Times bestseller Dispatches from the Edge: a Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival, described his experiences at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center when it was filled with people waiting for days without food or water for rescue after the devastation of Katrina. He was overcome with emotion several times as he told the stories of some of those people. He told us of the more than 20 people who have been found dead from the storm since March and asked us to remember that they were not “corpses” or “bodies,” but mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and friends. He urged us to go outside the convention center area to see the rest of the city 10 months after the disaster and to bear witness about the conditions in which many of the citizens of New Orleans are still living.

Four of my fellow ALA Councilors and I had already made arrangements through hotel staff to hire a guide to take us around the city. Ernest, a retired real estate professional and New Orleans native, took us on a two hour circle around the city. Television and photos in the news cannot show the breadth of the devastation. Acres of dead and twisted trees spread below the levees where they stood too long in the water. Vacant homes stretch mile after mile, in neighborhood after neighborhood. More than 150,000 abandoned vehicles sit under overpasses and in streets and other open areas around the city. Of the thousands of homes and businesses in eastern New Orleans, only 13%  have been re-connected to electricity. Hand lettered signs mark the streets. Some people were using ice chests and charcoal grills to live as they gutted their mold-infested houses. Our guide said that things looked much better than they had just the week before when many of the streets were filled with rubble that would have blocked our view of the ruined houses. It seemed like a third world country we were visiting, not one of the major cities of the United States.

There will be other, more hopeful, things to report when I see you on July 10.