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On October 29th, I handed over the keys to the Learning Ally Athens (Georgia) Studio to the University of Georgia. A bittersweet moment, it marked the end of more than fifty years of Learning Ally on the UGA campus. Fifty-plus years of love, laughter, and friendship, and many, many books recorded in several formats. I thought you might be interested in reading about the why and how this came to happen.
First, some background: back in 1953 Learning Ally (then Recording For the Blind) first organized a chapter at UGA, moving from building to building as University and Learning Ally needs changed. By the 1960s it became clear a permanent space was needed. Volunteers at the time worked hard, wheeled and dealed, and got the Callaway Foundation to agree to donate the money to construct a building for us if the University would loan the land. In the end, Learning Ally paid $1 for a 99-year lease. We were responsible for all utilities and maintenance inside the building, while the University covered maintenance costs from the studs-out. The Athens Studio was completed in 1967.
So, for fifty years we recorded in that studio space, bringing in a cadre of volunteers who represented the great variety of the population of Athens. University professors, homemakers, business professionals, school teachers, college students, blue-collar workers, local celebrities and even some homeless people: they all came through the studio and volunteered, supporting the work we were so well-known for. University and community groups got involved as well, especially the Lions Clubs, the Kiwanis Clubs, the Junior League of Athens, Delta Gamma sorority, and First Book UGA.
Over the years our recording equipment and methods changed drastically, and our use of the studio space changed as well. In the 2000s, while still using VRW software in the studio, we also began using GABR software, developed here in Athens by staff member Fred Smith. GABR allowed some volunteers to work from home. GABR was the precursor to EasyBooks (also developed here in Athens by Jay and Eleanor Cotton), which really opened the door to Learning Ally’s entry into the world of virtual recording.
As many of you know, we took all of our production completely virtual in 2017. While closing nearly every other studio in the country, we held onto the Athens Studio as we observed and assessed the effectiveness of our move to virtual production. While the majority of local volunteers began working from home, I continued hosting events with UGA and community groups, and area Lions continued to come in each month to record their national magazine.
Even before the issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that our move to virtual was the right way to go: we’ve been able to involve even more volunteers from all over the country (and the WORLD!), and we’ve created even more audiobooks than we had in studio-based production years at a much lower cost.
Since the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve found we’re even more efficient and effective than even we thought, and the reality is that we just do not need the studio space any more. All of the events and activities we did at the studio can be handled online.
Although Learning Ally paid no rent for the space, the Athens Studio cost us about $30,000 a year to maintain (utilities, repairs, maintenance of equipment, insurance, etc. all adds up). While we loved the space and hated saying goodbye to the folks at UGA, we simply could not in good conscience continue spending that much money on what amounted to nostalgia. It’s just not good stewardship of the funds so generously given, especially when those funds could be put towards our many wonderful programs that directly benefit blind and dyslexic students, their families, and their teachers every day.
Because of COVID restrictions, I couldn’t just bring in a bunch of local volunteers and staff to come in and have a clean-out party (too bad, that would have been nice!). So, the first thing I did was bring in local staff (and some helpful spouses) to sort through various categories of items: electronics, paperwork, furnishings, etc. Masked and distanced, we each went through our assigned areas and made determinations about the future of fifty-plus years’ worth of STUFF (imagine going through the home after the death of a crazy uncle, one who collected late-model computer and recording equipment, and never threw anything away).
Next, I brought in local volunteers and supporters, one at a time, and offered them items that I thought might have personal significance to them. For example, one of our booths had a plaque dedicating it to the memory of a woman named Ellen. I was able to contact her daughter, Deirdre, and she came in to receive the plaque. Ellen had died when Deirdre was a young child, and Deirdre had many memories of coming to the studio with her father to see the wonderful work being done in her mother’s memory. She was so grateful to receive the plaque.
Eleanor Cotton helped me get in touch with the family of volunteer emerita Ellen Hanna, who was instrumental in having the studio built all those years ago. Ellen was terminally ill this fall but we were able to give her family awards she had garnered and art work she had lent the studio. The Hanna family was so happy to have these mementos of the life’s work of their beloved mother and grandmother. Note: Ellen died soon afterwards; see the November 25, 2020 blog: https://learningally.org/Solutions-for-School/Educator-Blog/in-gratitude-to-ellen-hanna-lifelong-volunteer
The next step was to separate out the tech equipment that needed to be shipped to Princeton, and that which we could donate to a local charity. Once that was done, local volunteer Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman helped me transport items to be donated.
Many, many hours were spent boxing up, weighing, and shipping computer monitors, cables, routers, etc. back to Princeton. (and returning to the store for more tape, more boxes, more bubble wrap, etc.)
I was distressed about the many years of memorabilia: plaques, photographs, scrapbooks, etc. Because we had been on the UGA campus for so long, I reached out to the folks at the Special Collections Library to see if they would want any of it. I didn’t really expect them to want any of it...but they did! It was such a good feeling to pass it all on to their safekeeping, and to know that the information would be there in the archives, available to anyone looking to research Learning Ally’s presence in Athens.
In addition, we had paintings of significant local interest: they had been done by Irene Dodd, the daughter of Lamar Dodd, for whom the UGA School of Art is named. I was very pleased to pass those valuable artworks on to the school for its collection.
As you can imagine, there was a LOT of paperwork to go through. I am very grateful to volunteers Caren Snook and Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman for their help with this task. We were able to recycle a lot, but there were still bags and bags of shredded documents, much of which I used to pack items going back to Princeton.
Local staff and volunteers were given the opportunity to take home furnishings, shelving, etc., and the rest was donated to a local nonprofit for its thrift store. Many thanks go to staff member Christine Hoffman and her husband Chris Sparnicht, and my husband, David Court, who all came to help load the thrift store truck.
In all, we donated:
2 ½ truckloads of furnishings to the nonprofit Project Safe to help families working their way out of crisis;
2 packed-to-the-gills carloads of technical and office equipment to the nonprofit Free IT Athens to help low-income families and new small businesses with access to affordable technology;
50+ years of scrapbooks, programs, recordings, and other memorabilia to the UGA Special Collections Libraries;
2 paintings by Irene Dodd to the UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art;
several commemorative plaques to family members of those commemorated
I threw out as absolutely little as possible, recycling and gifting as much as I could.
As part of our closure, UGA made a $25,000 donation to Learning Ally, money that will further help us in our mission. We are all so grateful for the relationship we’ve had with the University. I know this will not be the end; it will be interesting to see how the relationship transforms over the years to come.
Sometime next year, the University will raze the building and the lot will become an extension of the parking deck next door. As it is directly across from the Special Collections Library, I expect, like many local staff and volunteers, to park there in the future when I attend events at the Library, and remember our days on campus fondly.
Last month I whined about not getting to go on all my planned trips this year (the Pollyanna in me thinks: HEY! When this is all over, I have MONDO e-credits with Delta and AirBnB! YIPPEE!)
I also asked YOU: while you’ve been semi- or fully-quarantined, what have you been reading? Where have you been going in your “book time”?
I invited you to submit your own mini-reviews of books you’ve read (for Learning Ally OR for pleasure)...and here are some that I’ve received since then.
If you’d like your book recommendations/reviews/pans to be posted next month, please include the following and email to me (Stacie) at sCourt@LearningAlly.org:
Redhead by the Side of the Road
submitted by volunteer Caren Snook
I enjoyed Anne Tyler’s latest, Redhead by the Side of the Road. If you're thinkin' that's a person, you'll be surprised! The story revolves around the adult life of the youngest child, and only son, of a haphazard family. For some reason, he just doesn't quite fit in.
Bellevue, Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital
Submitted by volunteer Beira Winter
I had already started Bellevue before the COVID-19 pandemic started. I chose it because Bellevue Hospital’s roots pre-date the American Revolution. The story of this public hospital presents US history through the lens of public health, sanitation, and medicine. As the extended title hints, there are plenty of personalities, politics, and prejudice; not just the challenges like distinguishing medical care from butchery and quackery, treating mental illness, training women as nurses, and that all people, not just the wealthy, should have access to good medical care.
Since Bellevue is a public hospital, it has been on the frontline of battles against everything from gruesome Civil War injuries, to addressing public health issues of Cholera and Typhoid, to the full spectrum of care for minorities and poor New Yorkers, as well as national epidemics including Spanish Flu, Polio, AIDS and SARS. The chapters addressing AIDS and SARS were haunting, as I adjusted to COVID 19 quarantine.
It’s a big book, but the pages fly by as the stories unfold. I found it very engaging and thought provoking.
Walk the Wire
I made myself plod through Walk the Wire, by David Baldacci, because the library had made it possible for me to put it on hold, download it, and read it on my tablet. Otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered. Baldacci was at his best when he wrote the Camel Club series, but his new characters are not very interesting.
submitted by volunteer Brian Hill
I'm not ALL the way through it yet, but I can report that I'm enjoying it greatly. I became interested in translations a couple of years ago (never really thought of it before) when I happened upon Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. To be honest I think I find translations easier to read (mostly) than earlier time period British writers, probably mostly because they have been often translated by modern scholars.
What I find enjoyable about the Russian writers is their almost microscopic look at ordinary interactions and relationships. We're all aware of all of the detailed nuances of interpersonal relationships, but having them described in such original and really, eye opening ways has been a real joy for me.
I AM going to have to double back though, and I know I'll enjoy it even more the second time (get all the multiple names and perhaps backgrounds of peripheral characters straight). I was so friggin animated last night just reading a seemingly simple description of our hero being walked to the front door by one of the hosts (albeit a somewhat special one) and the conversation they had.along the way. I was laughing, whooping, re-reading and eventually read the whole few pages over again, to my great delight. The guy will bring to the top of your mind things you probably are subconsciously aware of, but haven't put into words. He puts it into words and so makes you more aware of...the human condition I guess.
Nothing 'Idiotic' about this book, and better than hearing 'social distance' (isn't that an oxymoron) fifty thousand times!
John Sandford's latest, Masked Prey, is a page turner, of course. Lucas Davenport is in Washington, DC this time. Unfortunately, the plot is entirely believable, which makes it worrisome.
Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Kim Michele Richardson
I knew nothing about the depression-era Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. It was a depression-era program that paid people, mostly women, to be traveling librarians, delivering free books and magazines to people in the isolated areas of the Appalachian Mountains.
Richardson brings the program to life by creating an isolated mountain community and a “Blue” woman, Cussie May Carter, as her central character. Through Cussie and other traveling librarians, Richardson presents the dedication of the mule-riding librarians and the challenges they faced. She also introduces readers to the prejudices and real dangers faced by an overlooked minority, “Blues,” white people born with a genetic mutation that produces blue-tinged skin.
Richardson waits until the end of the book to address the realities of misguided medical attempts to “cure” Blues like Cussie of their skin color. It was easy to identify with Cussie’s passion for books and her determination to bring the world to her isolated neighbors through the books in her saddlebags.
If It Bleeds
Stephen King's latest, If It Bleeds, is a collection of short fiction. The title novella features PI Holly, who is a main character in several of King's recent books. My favorite was "The Life of Chuck", an amazing short story.
The Library Book
Submitted by staff member Stacie Court
On April 29, 1986, I was teaching French I and Introduction to Foreign Languages at two public middle schools in Newport News, Virginia. I came from a military family, I had met my husband in AFROTC, he was stationed at Langley AFB, and most of the children I taught were either Navy, Air Force, or Army dependents. Most of the stories focused on by area news stations and print outlets focused on military-related stories, so I rarely knew of much else going on across the country.
I had no idea that while I was teaching seventh and eighth graders to conjugate verbs, the Central Library in Los Angeles, California, was burning...and so many lives were changing.
Susan Orlean’s book is not only a real eye-opener about the event, but it is very interesting to read during this time rampant with so many things seemingly beyond our control. Orlean talks about everything--EVERYTHING--she can think of related to the burning and its aftermath. At one point she even describes her own experience of burning a book while researching this event: she felt compelled to experience the burning of a book, but couldn’t bring herself to burn any that she thought of--the idea was total anathema. Then, she found the perfect book, and burned it.
This is a story of many details, many books, and many people, but Orlean is able to weave it into an easy narrative, bringing us into the heartbreak and desolation experienced by the Los Angeles librarians (and the mourning of librarians the world over), as well as the hard work of the thousands of volunteers who helped bring the library back to life. She also helps us feel just a little bit of that debt we all owe to libraries and their patrons everywhere (including Athens, Georgia, where I borrowed this book from the public library).