‘Light at end of the tunnel’

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Southern University New Orleans is on the verge of re-opening its library and student activity center  after both facilities were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. SUNO chancellor Victor Okpolo, seen here on Monday in the rebuilding library.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Southern University New Orleans is on the verge of re-opening its library and student activity center after both facilities were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. SUNO chancellor Victor Okpolo, seen here on Monday in the rebuilding library.

Long-absent SUNO library making its return

As construction begins in earnest, Southern University New Orleans students are finally starting to believe they will get their library back, seven years after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters destroyed the building, leaving behind a three-story eyesore.

SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo called the renovations under way to the library and the adjacent University Center student union a tremendous morale booster to a campus community that lived through the devastating storm.

The hurricane destroyed the library’s first-floor collections in flooding that lasted several weeks. The second- and third-floor collections were initially unharmed, but roof damage, exposure to the elements and pest infestations led to much of those materials being condemned.

Named after its first director, the Leonard S. Washington Memorial Library was built in 1963, making it the third oldest building on the SUNO campus. But many of SUNO’s roughly 3,200 students have never been inside the 72,000-square-foot structure.

Tiara Washington, a senior general studies major, said it hasn’t been lost on her that she’s spent her entire college career at a school without a proper library. This week, when she learned that the library and University Center are on track to be re-opened late next year, Washington described her feelings as bittersweet.

Every college needs a library, she said, before noting that she’ll be long gone by the time SUNO’s reopens.

“It’s been a challenge because our professors don’t go easy on us,” Washington said. “They expect excellent work, and the fact that we don’t have access to a lot of resources is not an excuse. But this is long overdue; I couldn’t be happier.”

On Monday, library Director Shatiqua Mosby-Wilson walked to the soon-to-be renovated building. Outside, she pointed to a glass-enclosed bulletin board where a half dozen, sun-faded announcements were posted to the glass-enclosed bulletin board.

“Those were the last announcements posted before the storm hit,” she said.

Mosby-Wilson explains that SUNO faculty did not let up on their students after the hurricane, so it forced the librarians to get creative. Between 2006 and 2009, they set up a temporary library in a single trailer to accommodate students. As the collection was being rebuilt, the temporary library grew to four trailers, she said.

In 2010, the librarians found space among the offices in the campus’ Multi-Purpose building to set up a makeshift library. With several rows of bookshelves, cubicles and computer stations, it resembles a library.

The problem, as Mosby-Wilson sees it, is that the space is too small and students have to be rotated in and out in order to comply with the fire marshal’s capacity limits.

Late next year, when the collections can be moved back to the original library, Mosby-Wilson said they will have access to an increased archives section, reading zones, an Internet cafĂ© and several other improvements they didn’t have before.

Shaun Lewis, SUNO’s director of facilities, said he sees “the light at the end of the tunnel” as the roughly $6.2 million library renovation and the $4.2 million University Center rehabilitation have mostly moved past the architectural and planning stages which required approval from both the federal government and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office.

Lewis said the library and student union will both be state-of-the-art and protected against flooding with 4-foot-tall floodwalls and floodgates.

On the administrative side, Ukpolo said the difficult part of his job as chancellor was to assure all parties involved that SUNO was committed to rebuilding their library. The university established partnerships with libraries at Tulane University and the University of New Orleans to help students with research projects, but also had to set up the temporary libraries on the SUNO campus to satisfy a regional accrediting agency and the state.

Pressure from students also mounted until late this year when construction started, Ukpolo said.

“We had these buildings just sitting there with no activity,” he said. “It’s hard to sell people on the idea that the library is coming back. Now that they can see the progress day-by-day, people are starting to feel good. It’s not easy to run a university without a full-fledged library.”

Near the library, Stephanie Anderson walked by without even glancing at the building. Anderson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work, said the lack of a library has reinforced the need for students to be technologically savvy.

“You have to know what you’re doing and how to access journal articles online,” she said.

A few feet away, Monique Young, who is also studying for a master’s degree in social work, reacted more positively to the idea of the student union reopening.

“We’ve had a little library; it’s not what it was supposed to be, but it was something,” Young said. “My main gripe is that we haven’t had a bookstore.”