New Orleans Library Board Appoints New Executive Director After Two Years of Unrest | Local policy

After two tumultuous years of COVID, social unrest and the abrupt departure of its last leader, the New Orleans Public Library has a new executive director.

The library board named interim director Emily Painton as the permanent head of the city’s library system at the end of April, five months after the former city librarian resigned as the it was questioned whether he met the city’s residency requirement.

Unlike his predecessor Gabriel Morley, Painton is an inside hire and a known-base quantity. And while she can count on stable finances thanks to voter approval of a new mileage in December, she still faces challenges.

Emily Painton is the new Executive Director and City Librarian of the New Orleans Public Library. Photographed Friday May 6, 2022. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Lawyer)

The library has reduced the opening hours of its branches as it struggles to hire enough staff. And while some customers are switching from physical to digital books, others are struggling to navigate in the internet age. Acknowledging these issues in an interview, Painton still struck an optimistic note.

“This city deserves a fantastic library. I think we are doing a lot of great things. I think we can do even more,” she said.

Pandemic issues

It took 13 years for the system to fully reopen after Hurricane Katrina. Nineteen months after the last of six libraries destroyed by the storm returned to service, COVID shut down the system.

The system has adapted with curbside book drives and virtual book clubs. But many staff members complained that library leaders were too slow to close the library and too quick to reopen it.

In addition to fears about exposure to COVID, some staff felt like they were being targeted for possible budget cuts. Those fears came to a head with a 2020 mile vote in which Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed to redirect library funds to early childhood education and other priorities.

The property tax proposal pitted library board members and employees against Morley, who supported Cantrell. Voters rejected the plan. Then came the revelation last November that Morley was claiming a homestead exemption in Mississippi despite the requirement that he live here. He quit within hours.

From Austin to Orleans

Painton, 50, said she lived in Hollygrove. Originally from Oklahoma, she grew up visiting New Orleans often and earned a library degree in Austin. She worked as an archivist and in the library management of the West Bank campus of Delgado University before Katrina.

In 2005, she evacuated to Austin and worked in that city’s library system until 2015. She returned to New Orleans to work as the library’s senior manager. As director of public services for the library since June 2020, Painton was responsible for implementing many of the library’s responses to COVID.

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Emily Painton is the new Executive Director and City Librarian of the New Orleans Public Library. Photographed Friday May 6, 2022. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Lawyer)

Painton’s elevation to chief librarian came a month before the December 2021 vote on a 20-year dedicated library mile, meaning Painton has quickly become a public face of the successful effort. Turning her attention to ordinary operations, Painton said she drew on her experience in Austin despite the differences between the two cities.

While the Texas capital has relatively high literacy and digital literacy rates, many adults in New Orleans struggle with both. The needs in New Orleans are so great that Painton plans to hire a social worker who can help guide clients through online job applications or government assistance.

“Everything is online. Even fast food job applications are online,” she said. “There is a much greater need for social services in this city than the library fills.”

Dealing with turnover

Although she plans to expand library services, one of her biggest immediate challenges is to boost morale and stop the turnover. The system is about 50 staff short of the number it had before COVID, Painton said.

She visits branches for coffee with staff members to try to improve communication. The book on Painton’s bedside table is a business management tome: “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.”

Last month, the city council approved pay increases for some staff members that Painton hopes will slow attrition. But she acknowledges that the salary has not been enough to prevent her from losing two promising candidates recently.

“We can’t do great things if we don’t have great people, so I really want to make sure we’re able to compensate people properly,” she said.

Staffing shortages mean many branches have shorter hours. Nix, Mid-City and Alvar branches are also closed to physical traffic thanks to a mix of water damage and termites, but Painton hopes everything will reopen soon, starting with the Mid-City branch on the 16th. may.

New ways to read

Painton is also trying to respond to consumer shifts that have been accelerated by the pandemic. More and more customers are reading books digitally or watching movies online.

Painton said the library is adapting by purchasing more digital books and expanding its digital literacy training. As a former archivist, she has an attachment to “old, beautiful and irreplaceable books”, but she generally reads recent works on her Kindle.

“For me, what’s exciting about this is that people who may not come to the library every day but who pay taxes and support us, have more access to us,” he said. she declared.

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