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Throwback Thursday: Louisiana’s ultimate librarian

Editor’s note: In anticipatory acknowledgement of National Library Week (April 13-19), for Throwback Thursday, NolaVie rerunning Sharon Litwin’s 2013 interview with the at-the-time newly appointed Executive Director of the New Orleans Public Library, Charles Brown, about historic holdings, budget challenges, and a constantly morphing urban library system in the digital age.

To listen to Sharon Litwin’s interview with Charles Brown on WWNO radion, click here.

The Milton H. Latter Memorial Branch Library, located at 5120 St. Charles Avenue.

The Milton H. Latter Memorial Branch Library, located at 5120 St. Charles Avenue.

Charles M. Brown has been in the Crescent City all of a year and a bit. A native of St. Louis, the recently-appointed Executive Director of the New Orleans Public Library has come to appreciate this truly different community and the precious collections in his charge.

As a past president of the Public Library Association and a past member of both the Council and Executive Board of the American Library Association, he has been a visitor to New Orleans on many occasions.

“The city has always been a favorite place for our library conferences,” he says. “I had been here many times and always enjoyed it.”

But, like all well-loved tourist destinations, it’s one thing to be a visitor, and another to work and live in it. Still, having held senior library positions in New Jersey and San Francisco, Minnesota and North Carolina, it is clear those experiences have taught Charles Brown to be a pretty flexible fellow.

Good thing, too. For this library system, albeit the largest in Louisiana, is also the lowest per capita funded in the state. In an ever-evolving urban library system in a new digital age that requires libraries to offer e-books, DVDs and CDS as well as printed books, it’s quite a challenge to keep up with all the needs of almost a dozen buildings and collections scattered around Orleans Parish — on a budget provided by a millage set 27 years ago.

Part of the $8 million annual budget is now spent on all of the above, as well as on computer resources for the almost one-third of Orleans Parish citizens who either cannot receive the internet or are computer-illiterate. Since almost all available jobs are now posted online, as are applications for entry into the charter school system, the only hope for those outside the wired world is through help from library personnel.

“It’s a challenge,” Brown says wryly, with a mock sigh. “Just another challenge.”

But, he admits, it’s an exciting one. And Brown clearly embraces it.

Perhaps the most challenging of his challenges, however, is to secure and protect the extraordinary and historic objects in the Louisiana Division of the public library’s holdings, some more than 200 years old. Housed in the basement of the Main Library on Loyola Avenue, all of these artifacts came within a few feet of drowning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“When I moved here and realized that the Main Library is two blocks away from what was Charity Hospital and was essentially spared, I realize we could have lost irreplaceable pieces of this city’s history,” Brown says. “That truly was one of those Katrina miracles.”

The realization of that close call has also pushed Brown and the Library Board to consider an alternate plan for the collection’s safe keeping.

“Yes”, he admits with a smile, “another challenge.”

To find out more about the New Orleans Public Library programs and collections, go to Click here for an overview of the many public events coming up at library branches around Orleans Parish.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.


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