Reforming The Queens Library

Staff Writer

Dennis Walcott doesn’t dwell on the past. He’s more than happy to talk about the many changes that he’s brought to Queens Library. But those changes came from his personality and leadership style, he says. It’s not about the mistakes of the previous administration.

Walcott at the central branch of the Queens Library in Jamaica Photo by Bruce Adler

Walcott at the central branch of the Queens Library in Jamaica Photo by Bruce Adler

“You learn from the past, but you also make sure you stay consistent as far as how you deal with an issue,” he said.

Walcott took over the Queens Library after a tumultuous era. Former president and CEO Thomas Galante was fired in 2014 after using public library funds to pay for extravagant meals, airline upgrades and other personal luxuries. The publicized scandal raised questions about transparency and accountability in the Queens Library’s leadership. And so even as Walcott avoids lingering in the past, he has made several dramatic changes to foster a new culture of accessibility and openness.

For instance, Walcott works at a cubicle in the main lobby of the Queens Library’s busy central branch in Jamaica, with no walls or receptionists dividing him from staff and customers. It’s a move aimed at visibility, but also at being attentive to the library’s needs. Sitting down on the floor and talking with customers has helped Walcott work with library staff to identify and resolve issues—from IT problems to restroom cleanliness.

“I didn’t base it on Tom [Galante] at all,” he said. “Being accessible, to me, is important. That way, you get customer feedback.”

On an administrative level, Walcott created a management council with library leadership that meets every Monday, so that the library can maintain a “constant flow of information.”

“There’s constant interaction and trying to make sure there aren’t any silos,” he said. “It’s all about accountability and performance.”

Walcott said the council has improved programmatic development and the flow of information around capital projects, leading to ideas like the new capital tracker—an online tool that gives people the ability to check on the progress of the Queens Library’s capital projects.

Walcott is also accessible to his employees. He hitches rides on the library’s book delivery trucks to visit libraries across the borough. He visited every library in the system during his first three weeks on the job.

And his employees have noticed. John Hylsop is the president of Local 1321 of District Council 37, the union that represents the Queens Library workers. He said that Galante was antagonistic to the staff—refusing to negotiate a new contract, outsourcing custodial work, threatening and carrying out layoffs, among other things. Overall, Hylsop said, Galante was reluctant to collaborate with the union, whereas Walcott has already helped renegotiate a new union contract and played a role in improving workers’ sick-leave plan.

“There’s been an impressive 180-degree change,” said Hylsop. “I think the staff appreciates the culture that [Walcott’s] brought—more collaborative, more engaging. I hope it’s maintained.”

Thomas Wynn, blue-collar vice president of Local 1321 and a custodian at the Cambria Heights library, said Walcott is more accessible—he sees Walcott at least once a week out in the field.

“It just made it easier for me; he’s someone I can go to and talk to,” said Wynn.

It’s not just Walcott who has brought changes. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Borough President Melinda Katz overhauled the Board of Trustees after previous members’ loyalty to Galante raised concerns.

“We examined and completely changed all of our oversight systems to make them more disciplined and more transparent,” said Carl Koerner, the board’s new chair. “We changed everything—expense reimbursement policy, travel policy, the makeup of our committees; we rewrote our bylaws.”

Looking forward, the Queens Library is working on its strategic planning process, where the library collects community input through surveys from a number of community stakeholders—elected officials, community groups, staff and customers—in order to plan the library’s next steps.

Walcott said that while thinking about the past is a part of the job, a bigger part is to be a “cheerleader” for the library.

“The headlines shouldn’t dictate what is really going on as far as the operational and programmatic side of the library,” he said.

“There are great things that take place at the Queens libraries.”

Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, or @farrellj329.

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