Video: Southern literature takes a blow

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/8/2006 1:20:13 PM ET 2006-05-08T17:20:13

They are the classics Katrina took away — Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Curious George — more than 300,000 New Orleans library books, trashed. Many litter library floors nearly eight months after Katrina.

"We lost eight branches, and found dead fish among the moldy books," says Bill Johnson, director of the New Orleans Public Library system.

Johnson adds that repairing libraries in a town with so many other needs is not a  priority.

"Some people kind of forget in the modern rush of every day, but a library is typically a center of a community," he says.

Especially after Katrina.

The five libraries that were able to reopen now serve both as offices to fill out FEMA paperwork, and at the same time, sanctuaries to escape reality through the pages of the books that did survive.

"As we rebuild, we're looking to not only rebuild those book collections, but every other piece of what makes a library so vital," says Linda Santi, in charge of community awareness and public relations for the New Orleans Public Library system.

People around the country who have heard about the library damage have been extremely generous. Every day, boxes and boxes of both new and used donated books arrive in New Orleans. But like a good mystery, librarians are trying to figure out what to do with all the books. There's simply not the space or manpower to deal with them, which is why they are now asking for cash donations.

They'll need it. Much of the tax base which funded the libraries is gone. And like so many of the residents they serve, libraries are waiting for FEMA money.

The American Library Association is doing its part, pledging to donate $300,000 and hold its summer convention in New Orleans

"It's amazing," says ALA President-Elect Leslie Burger. "I think the amount of devastation that has occurred in this city is beyond what I saw on television."

It's a cross-country effort to write the next chapter for the buildings which showcased this city's rich literary history.

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