After two tumultuous years of COVID, labor unrest and the abrupt departure of its last leader, the New Orleans Public Library has a new executive director.
The library board made interim director Emily Painton the permanent head of the city’s library system at the end of April, five months after the previous city librarian resigned amid questions about whether he met the city’s residency requirement.
Unlike his predecessor Gabriel Morley, Painton is an internal hire and a known quantity to the rank-and-file. And while she can rely on steady finances thanks voters’ approval of a new mileage in December, she still faces challenges.
The library has reduced its branch hours as it has struggled to hire enough staff. And as some patterns shift from physical to digital books, others are struggling to navigate the internet era. Acknowledging those issues in an interview, Painton still struck an optimistic note.
“This city deserves a fantastic library. I think we do a lot of great things. I think we can do even more,” she said.
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 was brought back into service, COVID closed the system.
The system adapted with curbside book pickups and virtual book clubs. But many staffers complained that library leaders were too slow to shut the library down and too quick to reopen it.
In addition to fears about COVID exposure, some staffers felt like they were singled out for potential budget cuts. Those fears came to a head with a 2020 mileage vote in which Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed redirecting library funds to early childhood education and other priorities.
The property tax proposal set board members against each other and library staffers against Morley, who backed Cantrell. Voters rejected the plan. Then came the revelation last November that Morley claimed a homestead exemption in Mississippi despite a requirement that he live here. I have resigned within hours.
From Austin to Orleans
Painton, 50, said she lives in Hollygrove. An Oklahoma native, she grew up visiting New Orleans often and earned a library degree in Austin. She worked as an archivist and in leadership at the library on Delgado University’s west bank campus 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 main library manager. As the library’s public services director since June 2020, Painton was responsible for implementing many of the library’s responses to COVID.
Painton’s elevation to the chief librarian job came a month before the December 2021 vote on a 20-year, dedicated library mileage, which meant that Painton quickly became a public face of that successful effort. Turning her attention back to ordinary operations, Painton said she has drawn on her experience of her in Austin despite the two cities’ differences.
While Texas’ capital has comparatively high rates of reading literacy and digital literacy, 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 patrons through online applications for jobs or government assistance.
“Everything is online. Even fast food job applications are online,” she said. “There’s a lot of heavier social services needed in this city that the library fills.”
While she has plans for expanding library services, one of her biggest immediate challenges is rebuilding morale and stopping turnover. The system is roughly 50 staffers short of the number it had before COVID, Painton said.
She’s touring branches for coffee with staffers to try and improve communication. The book on Painton’s nightstand is a business management tome: “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.”
Last month, the City Council approved wage increases for some staffers that Painton hopes will slow attrition. But she acknowledges that the pay hasn’t been enough to stop her from losing two promising job candidates recently.
“We can’t do great stuff if we don’t have great people, so that’s why I really want to make sure we’re able to compensate people properly,” she said.
The staff shortages mean that many branches have shorter hours. The Nix, Mid-City and Alvar branches are also closed to all physical traffic thanks to a mix of water and termite damage, but Painton is hopeful that all will be reopened soon, beginning with the Mid-City branch on May 16.
New ways of reading
Painton is also trying to respond to consumer shifts that were accelerated by the pandemic. More patrons are reading books digitally or watching movies online.
Painton said the library is adapting by buying more digital books and expanding its digital literacy training. As a former archivist, she has an attachment to “old, beautiful, irreplaceable books,” but she usually reads her recent works on her Kindle.
“To me what I think is exciting about it, is that people who may not come into the library every day but do pay taxes, and do support us, have more access to us,” she said.