Book it: Michigan-to-Texas trip includes 50,000-volume deliver

Published 8:10 am Monday, March 19, 2018

By Ken Stickney

When Port Arthur public library reopens — some folks say September is the likely month for that, but no one is sure — this much is certain: There will be books to put inside.

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The 25,000-square-foot facility, built in 1978, was flooded last August by Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey, which dumped some 5 feet of water on some of parts of Greater Port Arthur.

Books up to 4 feet off the floor were immediately discarded, perhaps 40,000 of the 120,000 items that were located at the facility at 4615 Ninth Ave.

An intensive recovery effort of remaining library materials in recent weeks showed perhaps some 70,000 to 80,000 items were saved.

“We were able to salvage the collection that was not flooded by sterilizing, dehumidifying, vacuuming, boxing, palletizing, shrink wrapping and refrigerating the collection so mold does not grow back,” said Steven Williams, the library’s assistant director. “This inventory took five weeks to accomplish. It took a total team effort from the library staff and a contracted restoration team.”

Enter friends from Michigan.

‘How ‘bout 50,000?’

Kent District Libraries in that state have spearheaded a drive to collect materials to ship to Port Arthur as soon as this city’s library can accept them.

Jeff Cunningham, a reporter for Media in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the effort began last fall when accounts of Harvey’s destruction became part of a conversation at a statewide meeting involving human relations directors.

Kent District Libraries HR director Brian Mortimore, who attended that meeting, told Cunningham someone pulled up a list of libraries in Texas that, post-Harvey, needed books. Communication was made from Michigan to Texas to see how the Northerners could help.

Rachel Scott of Port Arthur Library was the first Texan to respond, said Cunningham, who has been following the story for the Grand Rapids Press and its website. The connection was established.

Mortimore asked what the Port Arthur library needed and the words “a few thousand books” came up in the conversation, Cunningham said.

“How ‘bout we send you 50,000?” Mortimore recalled saying, pulling a number from thin air. When Mortimore reported that offer back to Kent District, Cunningham said, his superiors were daunted.

Story took hold

 They needn’t have been concerned.

Cunningham said he wrote three stories that received wide circulation in Michigan. Some stories, Cunningham said, just catch on with readers. Help was on its way.

Cunningham said offers of help and books “came from everywhere,” from Kent District’s 20 branches — it’s the second-busiest library system in Michigan, and has more than 1 million items in its collection — and from at least 20 other libraries.

“Some couples bought books, some libraries donated duplicates,” Cunningham said. Libaries as far north as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — 10 hours away — contributed.

So did bookstores and book distributors and more. Cunningham said he lost track of all the people who chipped in, but it included at least four states.

Some 3,000 children’s books came from Minnesota alone.

Then comes logistics

But there’s more to donations than simply collecting, said Cunningham, who with his wife Cindy has run a public events company that coordinated major public happenings such as triathlons. That experience taught him lots about the need for careful coordination.

“You better know the start and finish and all the places along the route,” Cunningham said.

That’s why Cunningham visited Port Arthur for four days last month, meeting with library officials and checking to see when — and how — the local library here wanted to receive the donation. That’s a matter of logistics.

To deliver that many books you need two semis loaded with books, Cunningham said. They’ll come in 25-28 crates of books, 700 to 1,000 books per crate.

“If you bought these books on the street, it might cost about $400,000,” Cunningham said.

First, the donors needed to know that Port Arthur still wanted the donation, that it would be a gift, not a burden. They were assured the donation was needed.

Then coordinators on both ends needed to determine the small but important points: How do they get books off the trucks? Where should they deliver? When should they deliver? Should the donation come in one delivery or two? Does the library have a loading dock?

Books in storage

That’s what Cunningham did when he visited Port Arthur, although he made time to visit Mardi Gras and sample Cajun food. He met with Jose Martinez, who is retiring as library director; Williams, assistant director; Scott; and Friends of the Library.

Right now, the books are stored in a warehouse owned by the truck company that will deliver them when the library reopens. Initially, that was supposed to happen in February but now it looks like it will be later.

Williams said he believes the library, when it reopens, will have a “sufficient” collection. He said the staff is working on “collection development on a grand scale.”

“The only thing we ask is if any patrons have anything that may be considered Port Arthur history that he or she does not want, we will definitely accept those types of materials,” including books, documents, pictures and video.

Lonely library

On Friday, the library was gutted and empty. Synergy NDS from Florida said work on the roof will begin in a week or two and then work on the interior will accelerate.

Williams said the city is awarding bids for roofing, a sprinkler systems, walls and ceilings, carpet and more, but the final cost is not yet known.

Synergy is partnering with Texas Municipal League, which insures the library.

“We miss everyone and we know the public misses us, too. It will take some time but it will be well worth the wait,” Williams said.

“On our end, it’s a great story,” Cunningham said of the Michigan effort. “We’re getting books into the hands of people who want to read.”

Cunningham said people always want to know how to help.

“That’s the thing we see over and over with Americans. When we tell people ‘Here is the need,’ money is almost never the issue. The issue is how do we do it.”

This was how.