Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History/Photography, University of Oklahoma; Masters of Library and Information Services, University of Texas at Austin; Master of Arts in Art History, Tulane University.
The Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal was onto something when in the 7th century B.C. he decided to organize his cuneiform tablets in what is considered the world’s oldest known library. Now, whether or not he got them via plunder or by commission, it was a decision that changed history.
How? Though libraries started as repositories for rulers, the wealthy, religious orders and scholars, they evolved into something truly egalitarian. No matter who you are, libraries are there not only to inform, but also to quote best-selling author and producer Sidney Sheldon, “Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life.”
The New Orleans Public Library opened its doors Jan. 18, 1897 in St. Patrick’s Hall on Lafayette Square with a collection of 35,000 books. It was an evolution from the Fisk Free and Public Library, which was founded in 1843.
Today’s, NOPL — celebrating its 125th anniversary — has 15 locations with more than 466,000 items in its collection. And, it’s not just books, as the library’s Interim Executive Director and City Librarian Emily Painton will tell you.
Painton has more than two decades of experience working in libraries. In addition to her time at NOPL, she has worked at the Austin American Statesman Newspaper library and archives, was an archival assistant at the Southwestern Writers and Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection and a reference librarian at Texas State University and was in a management position at the Austin Public Library. She also spent four years managing the Delgado Community College Westbank Campus library, says her NOPL biography.
Painton also fell in love with New Orleans, which started when she regularly visited the city in her youth and spent a summer waiting tables in the French Quarter in her early 20s.
How many years have you been with this organization? Six years. I was Regional Manager of the Main Library from 2015 to early 2020, when I was promoted to Director of Public Services. In the fall of 2021, I took over as Interim Executive Director.
Tell us what your organization does. At its core, the New Orleans Public Library is an organization that connects people with information. Often the information comes in the form of physical materials such as books or movies, in addition to lending services, which barely scratch the surface of what the library does.
- Offering free, safe, and comfortable places for people to go.
- Connecting people with technology, resources and entertainment.
- A place of learning and community.
- Hosting programs and events and providing meeting spaces for anyone who needs them.
- Forging partnerships with community groups in order to better serve our city.
- Documenting and archiving history in the making and providing research tools and services.
In a nutshell, the library is dedicated to transforming lives, enriching neighborhoods and preserving history by eliminating barriers through access to our ever-growing wealth of resources, information and services.
What has been the biggest — or most important — accomplishment that has happened while you have been at the organization? It has been leading the New Orleans Public Library through the COVID-19 pandemic. This required paying close attention to evolving COVID-19 guidelines in order to make the library accessible to our citizens, while also keeping our staff and the public as safe as possible. The pandemic was uniquely challenging for the library, because in times of economic and social hardship, the library’s services are more important than ever. Trying to balance those needs resulted in initiatives such as our contactless lending service, reservation-based in-person visits, and the move to virtual programming. More recently, I was proud and grateful to be able to represent the library during our successful millage renewal campaign. Now that we are fully funded for the next 20 years, we are excited to be able to move forward with implementing our new 10-year strategic plan, which aims to create a library lifestyle for all New Orleanians. Our strategic plan focuses on three main areas: serving youth, improving and expanding the city’s workforce and reimagining our spaces in an equitable and forward-thinking manner.
What is something about your organization that people most likely do not know about? A common misconception about libraries is that we are a repository for books. Yes, it’s true, we love books but the library is so much more. As previously addressed, we have a wide variety of services and resources that are far too extensive to list. From our cake pan collection to our seed libraries, our streaming platforms to our educational resources, our Archives to our Teen Tech Center, and even free access to local museums and attractions, the library truly unlocks access to all sorts of amazing things.
Is there a person (or mentor) that inspired you? If so, how? I am inspired by my mother who taught me the love of diverse cultures, art, literature and learning; by my father, who owned a restaurant and showed me that a boss can be both compassionate and successful; and by the first librarian I worked under as a student worker, who told me that I would make a good librarian one day.
What are you reading now? “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” by Kim Scott
What is your idea of New Orleans bliss? Springtime, when you can smell the gardenias blooming and before it’s hot but no longer chilly, early morning long walks in Audubon Park; wandering through the almost empty French Quarter on a quiet afternoon; and outdoor dinners with my husband and dear friends at one of the many delicious restaurants in our city.
Secret ambition? To one day live in Europe, travel a lot, paint, write and read.