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Visitors bag treasured authors at American Library Association meeting in New Orleans

By Diana Pinckley

Quick hands and strong shoulders appear to be the basic necessities for enjoying the meetings of the American Library Association to the fullest.

The group, 17,000 strong, is in New Orleans through Tuesday. More than 2,000 sessions informed all kinds of librarians – reference, public, academic –  about the latest on all kinds of issues – children’s literature, e-books, and coping with funding crises.

But the real action was in the exhibit area, where publishers were handing out free books, or sometimes selling them for a substantial discount.

Librarians formed long lines, gigantic red ALA bags flying like heavy flags at shoulder height, to get a signed copy and a personal moment with a favorite writer. They were spoiled for choice – among the dozens of authors signing were Tomie dePaola, who has more than 200 children’s books to his credit including “Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise,” and S. J. Watson, author of the first novel, “Before I Go To Sleep,” one of summer’s break-out mysteries. Mo Willems, who grew up in New Orleans and has won a busload of awards for his children’s books, attracted a crowd for “Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator” at one booth and “Should I Share My Ice Cream?” at another.

It was the rare librarian – or random booklover –  who had only that big red bag, however. Galleys of new books kept appearing, so we patrolled the booths, hawklike in our efforts to grab the latest before they disappeared. Lines constantly cropped up, snaking 20 or 30 or even 50 strong through the exhibit area. See a line? Check it out. It’s probably an author of young adult books, those for middle-schoolers and above and a fast-growing area in the world of publishing.

The lines and the books, while certainly the most popular section, made up a minority of the many aisles of exhibits. There were areas devoted to library furniture, multiple e-tools for library management and extending electronic services.

A sprightly conversational robot held forth in one booth, right next to the area where newbie author Michael Brown signed on Saturday. Yes, the FEMA one. The “heck-of-a-job-Brownie” one. There were no lines for him, though. Just a confused but polite passer-by who stepped up to see who Brown was and what “Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House and Beyond” might be about.

Curiously, three or four booths were devoted to foot health and comfort. Are librarians especially prone to aching arches? Or, given the size of the Morial Convention Center, are these people are present at every trade show?

Yes, e-books are starting to outsell traditional fiction in some arenas. But not here. In 12 hours over two days, I saw only six laptops in use.

If there was anybody who added fewer than six books to one of those big red bags, I’d be surprised. On Sunday, I witnessed one trio who trekked to the parking lot, a dozen heavy shoulder bags among them. They loaded their treasures into the car and headed back for more.

Most folks with  multiple bulky bags were likely to be scoring books for their library collection. I was in it for the mysteries.

One popular Sunday panel titled “Mystery and Horror @ Your Library” featured New Orleans writers Bill Loehfelm (“The Devil She Knows”), Erica Spindler (“Watch Me Die”) and Candice Procter, who writes historical mysteries as C.S. Harris (“Where Shadows Dance”) and, with her husband Steven Harris, thrillers as C.S. Graham (“The Babylonian Codex”). Fans clutching stacks of books lined the walls following that session.

Saturday was mystery day at PopTop – a stage and 50 or so seats in the back of the sprawling exhibit floor devoted to popular topics. I heard 13 writers talk about  how they do what they do – and what they love best about it. Some, like J.A. Jance and Carolyn Hart, are bestsellers with dozens of books and series to their credit. Some, like Steve Hamilton, have won an Edgar Award, the mystery world’s top prize. Some, like Elaine Viets, who writes the Dead-End Jobs series and is wickedly funny onstage, were entirely new to me.

And some, like Karin Slaughter, whose bestselling thrillers are set in Georgia, are stepping up to support public libraries in an era of severe budget-cutting. Slaughter is founder of The group recently sponsored a series of fundraisers that raised $50,000 to buy books for the Dekalb County Georgia system.  Among the hottest-selling items were character names in forthcoming books by a dozen top-flight mystery and thriller writers, including Slaughter, Alafair Burke, Lee Child and Michael Connelly. She plans for a national rollout of the effort in the next several months.

It’s simple. Authors love libraries. Most boast of getting their start there, when they were kids and a librarian put a particular, memorable book in their hands.

“We built our audiences through libraries,” said Harlan Coben, a guy who has 47 million books in print worldwide, thanks to the bestselling Myron Bolitar  mystery series and several stand-alone books that have gone straight to No. 1. “Your buildings have our books in them – you’re caretakers of our dreams.  And you bring books to people – that’s the coolest job in the world.”

Librarians may be the coolest people in the world, too. The American Library Association was the first major convention to come to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Through a program called “Libraries Build Communities” that ALA debuted here in 2006, volunteers from all over the world spent Friday at a dozen local public and school libraries, helping with tasks that ranged from reorganizing collections to landscaping and painting.

Thanks to ALA, I envision a cool, indoor summer – entertained by the 33 pounds (yes, you read that right) of books I hauled home in my own three bags. My shoulders may be sore, but that’s okay.  My mystery-loving mind is ecstatic.

Diana Pinckley reviews mysteries for The Times-Picayune.


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