Skip to content

Recording Hurricane History

Library Will Collect Oral Histories of Katrina Survivors

Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, thinks the time is ripe to begin the rescue effort in the areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But Bulger and the American Folklife Center won’t be saving any lives. They’ll be saving life stories.

While relief efforts have been in full swing for more than a month in the hurricane-damaged areas of the South, the Library of Congress has begun a different kind of recovery effort.

From the collection of oral histories to the offer of preservation and book recovery assistance, the Library is looking to help safeguard the hundreds of libraries damaged in the storms, as well as document this unfortunate event through the people who lived through it. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The Library [of Congress] has done a lot of work to preserve historical materials, but here we are working with living history, people who are alive and able to tell their story as it is now,” Bulger said. “If we don’t collect it, who will?”

Bulger understands well the importance of collecting and recording national sentiment in times of crisis and the historical role of the Library of Congress in maximizing such efforts.

After Pearl Harbor, Alan Lomax, then assistant in charge of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song, asked his staff to gather “man on the street” interviews to capture the diverse reactions, emotions and eyewitness accounts from that day.

The result was one of the first documentary works of its kind, and while only eight hours long, it has proved indispensable for historians, folklorists and anthropologists interested in obtaining a more complete understanding of the attitudes of the time.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Library called upon folklorists and ethnographers once again to create a similar yet extended documentary project, which ultimately included hundreds of audio and video interviews, graphic items and written narratives from all across the country.

Today, the destruction and displacement wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita present another opportunity to document a distinct and wholly tragic American experience, according to Bulger.

“This is the kind of history that in many ways usually falls through the cracks,” Bulger said. “We feel strongly that this is something that needs to be preserved. The fact that these interviews will be included in the Library of Congress gives them a necessary longevity. One-hundred years from now, people will be able to go back and listen to these interviews and understand what happened and how we felt.”

The Library of Congress is working concurrently with two separate documentary projects, one in Houston sponsored by the University of Houston and the Texas Arts Council, the other in Louisiana sponsored by several universities in the state. Another project in Mississippi is in the developmental stages.

The Library is sending staff to the affected areas to set up field schools where they will then train people in the ethics of field collection, the handling of release forms, archiving, working the equipment, and setting up databases.

But the projects in Houston and Louisiana serve another purpose as well. By employing out-of-work hurricane survivors — many of whom were full-time professors or journalists less than two months earlier — to interview other survivors, these projects are getting money immediately back to the people who need it most. And there is inherently a greater honesty between interviewer and interviewee that comes from shared experience, said Bulger.

“This is a way for them to do gainful, important work in the fields that they know best,” Bulger said. “It’s not just a handout.”

Back in Washington, the Library is working to develop a viable plan for the preservation and recovery of books and libraries damaged by wind and water. Yet due to the sheer number of libraries and collections affected along with confusion on the part of local libraries, the Library of Congress’ Office of Preservation is finding it difficult to put its resources to immediate use.

Only days before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Dianne van der Reyden, director of the Office of Preservation, was on a conference call with the several universities and institutions that make up the International Federation of Libraries Association’s North American Network negotiating the creation of the first national collections emergency plan. But Hurricane Katrina struck before the plan was finalized, forcing the Library to reconsider the scope of the proposed plan and improvise a little too.

While the ultimate objective is still the finalization of some form of the national emergency plan, the goal for now has simply been to bolster the ability to provide sufficient assistance if any libraries in the affected areas were to request it.

Toward this end, the Office of Preservation has developed numerous actions for the implementation of a recovery effort. From the mobilization of expert staff willing to be deployed and the development of classes and workshops to teach recovery techniques, to the coordination of weekly conference calls with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine needs, resources, funding and timeliness for recovery in the short and long terms, the Office of Preservation is trying to cover all of its bases.

So far, however, it has received only one phone call asking for assistance and has yet to send a staff member to the affected areas. Van der Reyden sees it as a problem of communications due to the storms and a possible misunderstanding among local libraries as to the seriousness of the damage.

The project is a massive one, she said.

“We’re ready to go down there, we’re ready to advise and answer questions, we’re ready to help whenever. We’re just waiting for the phone calls,” said van der Reyden. “Yet it would also take all of us many, many lifetimes to do all the recovery needed. The question is how you can set up the right kind of assistance.”

Van der Reyden believes a triage approach may be the best line of attack. But protocols need to be compiled along with a list of the damaged libraries in the affected areas in order to assess the needs of individual cases and how best to direct available resources. While under way, this can be a time-consuming venture and time is one thing that libraries threatened with water and mold damage don’t have in excess.

Yet van der Reyden remains hopeful that the Library of Congress will be able to help many of these damaged libraries and collections, despite the difficult conditions.

“I am confident that we can make a difference in terms of recovery because we have a good record on doing recovery both at the Library of Congress, throughout the United States, and in other countries as well,” she said. “What would be required is for people to contact us and then we would evaluate the situation, assign priority, and move forward from there.”