It’s been a humbling experience to walk around New Orleans and hear the name of my chosen profession murmured over and over, to be asked, are you a librarian?, and to receive unprecedented expressions of thanks. This time, we weren't being thanked for the usual things you thank librarians for—teaching you to read, looking up a word, helping with a resume. Some of us offered volunteer time for clean-up and other service projects, but all of us are being lauded as heroes for demonstrating our fearlessness against mold and crime and for dropping big bucks. Not just eight bucks for the gin & tonic, but two bucks for the tip. As I wrote earlier, I felt as if this were the only way I could help. I’m in no position to do relief work, with my multiple chemical sensitivities, mold allergies and tendency to wilt in the heat. But, I wasn’t feeling particularly great about the level of help I could offer.
A lot of us visiting New Orleans had crises of conscience, uncomfortable with all the emphasis placed on our roles as first responders and rescuers of a different sort. I’m a financially comfortable white person coming to a town which, even in the best of times, is largely characterized by poverty. The people I handed money to were, more often than not, people of color who rely on the generosity of strangers to make up for their mean hourly wage (a local bartender told me that it’s pretty common for wait staff to make less than $2.50/hr). I guess it’s the nature of a service economy, as it always has been. I’m just more mindful of it than usual. It also felt odd being some place that I associate with being very happy, with having a good time, with being able to relax and forget everyday annoyances. The fact that I was obsessing about it so much somehow made it worse.
But, on Monday, Anderson Cooper, the CNN correspondent who publicly shamed those who most needed shaming during and after Katrina told a roomful of librarians why it was important that we were in New Orleans. Cooper was the keynote speaker for the Public Library Association’s President’s Program. It takes a pretty good keynoter for me to sit through one of those programs. You can only hear so many obligatory “gosh libraries are wonderful” stories. But, I developed a great deal of respect for Cooper during the Katrina coverage and looked forward to hearing what he had to say.
The program got a late start and featured the usual lengthy award presentations, but I’m glad I stayed. Cooper took the stage and was charming and funny. And, of course, he immediately thanked us, the librarians, but not for the usual reasons. I often take detailed notes during programs, but this time I just wanted to listen. Even though I don’t have any direct quotes it’s not hard to remember his message.
He told us that New Orleans is a place that does not hide its history--not the good, the bad or the ugly, and he gave examples of historic buildings where all the incarnations are carved in stone, even when their utility conflicts with a previous incarnation. Nothing is chiseled off or sandblasted. History is alive and visible here, like the exposed cross-section of a pit at an archeological site. When you dig a pit, you see it all. Food and tools, bones, fancies and turds. New Orleans has all of that.
Cooper’s appearance at ALA marked his first return to the Morial Convention Center since shortly after Katrina. Understandably, it was difficult for him. No. I’m sure “difficult” doesn’t begin to cover it. He talked about the last time he’d been there, in the company of a doctor who had been unable to offer medical assistance during the occupation. He had the skills and the will and assumed that there were first responders with medicine and equipment on-site. There were none. Cooper and the doctor went back after the last evacuee had boarded a bus, and all they found was two abandoned dogs, left to forage in the mountains of stench and rot. Cooper had other stories about what he saw, none of which illustrated relief or grace. Then he asked if anyone recognized the name Ethel Freeman. One person shouted in the affirmative, but the rest of us came up empty. Ethel Freeman was a chronically ill woman who had been evacuated to the convention center by her son. She survived the hurricane and flooding, but because there was no medical care, died within a day of her arrival. She was the woman whose son could do nothing but cover his mother’s body with a plaid blanket and leave a note. She was the woman whose picture we all saw over and over again, a symbol of multiple, criminal failures.
It was impossible to reconcile that horrific image with what we’d all seen the past few days—cheerful vendors, perky PowerPoints, dry erase boards with game plans, toilets that flushed automatically, $5 lattes. I confess to having forgotten exactly where I was until I talked to my husband at the end of my first day. “What’s it like?” he asked. Before I could blurt out, “Well, jeeze, it’s New Orleans. You know…hot, muggy. I’m working hard, seeing friends, having a good time,” I realized that’s not what he was looking for. He meant the convention center. Oh. I admitted that I hadn’t thought about it. It hadn’t even occurred to me. Because you can’t tell. It’s one bit of New Orleans history that has been disappeared. Sandblasted. Painted over. Recarpeted replanted renewed renaissanced. Cooper thought there should be at least a plaque, a memorial, something….
But, since there isn’t the first reminder of what happened there nine months ago, it’s up to us, the librarians, to remember. Our money is good. Our presence is a morale booster. Our sweat and labor in the parish libraries is cherished and invaluable. Several of us stayed in outlying areas still landscaped with mountains of trash—piles of root balls and roofs, curtains and My Little Ponies. Some of us shared a hotel with dormless college students and displaced residents. Some saw Slidell, the 9th Ward. Witnessing, however, was just the start of our marching orders. Our real help will start when we return turn home. In our libraries and archives and amongst our friends, we will do what librarians always do. Record, preserve and share. Cooper knew why it was good for librarians to be in New Orleans. We do not forget.