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Dennis Walcott Wants to Write New Chapter of Scandal-Plagued Queens Library

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | October 2, 2016 11:21am
 New Queens Library CEO, Dennis Walcott, in his bullpen office.
New Queens Library CEO, Dennis Walcott, in his bullpen office.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

QUEENS — Dennis Walcott, the new president and CEO of the Queens Library, was hardly surprised to find a note waiting on the desk of his bullpen office a couple days ago.

“Dear Mr. Walcott,” the letter from a patron read, “being winter is right around the corner, can coat and bag hooks be placed on the back of stall doors in the restrooms. It’s very unsanitary having to place a bag or clothing on floor. Thank you & keep up the good job.”

“We’ll take care of that,” said Walcott, 64, the former New York City schools chancellor and deputy mayor, who shortly after taking over the library in March, placed his 140-square-foot workspace, furnished with old equipment found in the library's storage, on the main floor of the Central Library in downtown Jamaica.

Library-goers often stop by to chat with Walcott about everything, from books they checked out to job opportunities at the library, he said.

“I’m not an office kind of person,” said Walcott, a lifelong Queens resident. 

Dennis Walcott, the former NYC school chancellor, took over the Queens Library as president and CEO in March. (DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)

Sitting in the library’s main room, he said, gives him an opportunity to grasp the ins and outs of the job.

“Being a non-librarian I thought I’d be able to absorb the library culture and the connections a lot easier from down here than being upstairs in an office.”

His decision proved to be the right one, he said. "I know definitely a lot more than I knew when I first started, and I know a lot more than I knew a month ago.

"But there is always more to learn."

Walcott said he is determined to improve the image of the Queens Library after it was tarnished under his predecessor, Thomas Galante.

Galante was fired in 2014 amid a series of investigations into his misuse of funds from the 120-year-old institution, including a $140,000 renovation to his office that featured a private smoking deck. 

Galante sued the library for his more than $2 million severance package last year. The library countered by filing a complaint in court this February for the return of more than $200,000 in "questionable expenses," according to published reports

The deck has been sitting empty since Galante's departure, Walcott said.

It took the Queens Library Board’s search committee several months to select Walcott, whose salary is $295,000 compared to Galante's $392,000 a year, library officials said.

Walcott, who grew up in St. Albans and currently lives with his wife in Cambria Heights, said his priority is to “[run] our library in an efficient way making sure that our bottom line is met and we adhere to our fiduciary responsibility of using our funds wisely.”

He also hopes that patrons will stop paying attention to "the headlines of the past" if the library continues to provide quality services, he said.

His style and accessibility has earned praise from patrons and employees alike.

"I think it’s pretty cool because he can actually see what’s going on the floor and that’s really important when it comes to customer service," said Majica Decosta, 32, a Jamaica resident. 

Eileen Gellman, 67, who has worked at the Queens Library for 34 years, described Walcott as "hands-on, personable and available." 

"He will just walk around and come over and say: 'how is it going today' and he makes us feel good," she said. "He is very library-oriented even though his background is education." 

Walcott said his main concern is how to meet the needs and expectations of the library patrons, including the borough's large immigrant population.

The Queens Library and its 62 branches, he said, serve as an "information source" for 2.3 million people, who rely on its more than 52,000 free programs, which include English-language lessons, concerts, fitness classes, summer meals for kids, after-school aid and assistance for job-seekers.

"We offer a wide array of workshops but people can always use more," he said. "We need more books, more computers, and a lot more programs as well."

He also wants to see the library's hours extended.

"If we open it up, people will come," he said.

(DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)

Walcott, an avid reader, said that one of the advantages of his new job is being surrounded by books.

"Obviously, I have books here to read on a regular basis," he said adding that most recently he read "The Underground Railroad,” a novel about slavery by Colson Whitehead.

He is now waiting for "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue to become available, but all 21 copies have been checked out and by the end of September there were 12 outstanding requests ahead of him, he said. 

Six months after taking over the library, Walcott said, the job seems to be a perfect fit for him.

"What drives me is job satisfaction and the ability to make a meaningful impact in the community," he said. "And what better place than a library?"