2017-03-15 / Front Page

Queens College Business Breakfast Hosts Queens Public Library CEO Dennis Walcott

By Thomas Cogan

The latest Queens College Business Breakfast welcomed President and CEO of Queens Public Library Dennis Walcott as its speaker.  He rewarded those who invited him and everyone who came to see him on a wet, snowy morning with descriptions of QPL’s many services at its 63 (soon to be 64) branches; the effect libraries have on people he has met, which includes immigrants, homeless persons and ex-convicts; and how he’d like to make the system even better.  The question period was excellent, in effect extending his address.  There was even one inquiry about overdue books and other items, which in effect he said he might have known would be asked.  By the time he said he was “blessed in life” and has loved every job he’s ever had, a listener might also have known that such a statement from him was likely to be spoken.

He began with a remembrance of Helen Marshall, former borough president of Queens, who died March 3 at 87.  He said that some of the libraries coming into completion now got their start when she was BP.  

He said he wanted to describe Queens Public Library broadly as a public service.  He began by saying that if you live in Queens there is at least one branch of the library within a mile of you.  There was a recent “meet the public” day when library workers at several branches welcomed those coming through the doorway and asked what brought them there.  He said that some of those thus welcomed became suspicious and asked if anyone had gone out on strike.  On that day and many others he has met visitors and asked them what has brought them to the library.  The homeless have reasons of their own other than simply to get off the street.  He said one homeless man he met was an inveterate reader and would sit at a table with one book after another.  The man was surprised to hear that if he got a library card, apparently something he knew nothing about, he could take books out for a specified

time period, which opened a door for him. Later, Wolcott said he hoped a plan could be put into effect to have direct library service to homeless shelters.

The QPL president told the breakfast meeting that people come into the library primarily for books and then to use the computers.  That leaves a lot, though, particularly the job search function and the instructions and advice related to it.  He said that the homeless and unemployed can have Occupational Safety and Health Administration training and go on to employment, as many have done.  For food workers, one branch set up a commercial kitchen for them.  There’s even what is known as the Tibrary, where, like books, neckties can be lent to those who need them for such occasions as job interviews.  

Legal assistance for immigrants is a huge matter, particularly in Queens, where immigrants and languages abound.  Wolcott said that in December, when a strategic plan for the library was drawn up, it was begun with the sending-out of surveys, in at least a dozen languages.  He also said that he recently heard five immigrants, each one speaking a different language, testify as to how valuable QPL had been for them and their situations.  He observed that much of what we take for granted is baffling to others and can give them a helpless feeling. 

He has an office in the Flushing Library, but doesn’t wish to be confined to it.  “If you see me sitting at my desk for a long time, you’ll know I’m not doing my job,” he told his audience.  Getting out allows him to meet such persons as the formerly incarcerated man who was on a job search.  He got training and a job followed.  He gets back to Wolcott regularly.  He said he also meets ex-Queens residents who tell him about the library days of their youth, which brings him around to pitching for contributions and other ways of supporting QPL.
At question time, he was asked if the library is hiring.  He said certainly, and it is looking for both generalists and specialists, all of whom should be customer-friendly.  He remembered his younger days when he found that those who worked in libraries seemed aloof.  He said he might have been wrong but that was his impression.  He took the QPL appointment determined it would project a different image than the one he remembered from years past.
He answered the question about overdue materials by saying the library wants to “reach out gently” to delinquents and perhaps make settlements on some of the high fines they might have been incurred.  Missing books and videos, for instance, can frustrate customers, as he well knew when recently he tried to take out a season’s worth of “24” episodes that the library had but was temporarily missing because it was long overdue.

Among other questions was one about having a branch in Willets Point.  A fine idea, he said, but the whole area’s bound up in litigation about the old auto repair shops, so everyone must wait for a more fortunate day.  How might QPL help school libraries?  He said the library has college students working with middle schoolers whose schools may be lacking in materials.  He said that at one school and in one day, they signed up 70 to get QPL cards.  It was then that he mentioned the potential plan to extend service to homeless shelters.

He also hopes to see at least one all-day, all-night branch eventually.  Having six-day service at nearly all branches and seven-day service in three makes such a thing seem possible.  Dennis Walcott might just see it as a likelihood becoming a certainty.

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