Leading ‘Old’ Institution Into The Future

After being locked down for nearly a year, the library allowed patrons back inside starting in February. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Talking with the Westbury Public Library director

Is there a future for public libraries as the world increasingly moves to virtual and online realities?

Westbury Memorial Public Library Director Tracy Van Dyne has faith that as long as it serves as a community center, the brick-and-mortar building will continue to enjoy public support and patronage.

Officially introduced at the October 15, 2020 meeting of the library board of trustees, the director took over in the midst of the long span when the pandemic kept the library closed. Yes, it continued to serve residents via its online offerings and “curbside” pick-up of books and other materials, but as with many institutions, its main customers were locked out and unable to engage in the pleasures of browsing and to enjoy the full benefits of the library.

We always need to be two steps ahead, especially to remain relevant.

Tracy Van Dyne

The building finally opened its doors on Feb. 26 for three days a week, and on April 5 began a five-day schedule.

Van Dyne, who has spent 25 years in the library world, called herself a “Suffolk girl” and moved to Oceanside several years ago and most recently worked in the Great Neck library system as an acting director.

Tracy Van Dyne. (Contributed Photo)

She had a chance to shape the 2021-22 budget, which takes effect July 1, and presided over what she called a ”quiet” election” on April 20. The budget was passed 115-9 and Trustee Marie Rousseau, running unopposed, was elected to a five-year term. Van Dyne manages a staff of about 40 and a budget of more than $3 million.

Recently, Van Dyne sat down to talk with the Westbury Times about the library and her plans.

Q: Why did you take the Westbury position?

A: I always thought it was an interesting neighborhood. I’ve frequented the Old Westbury Gardens and have been attracted to the area and wanted something different from Great Neck.

Q: The people who interviewed you—what was their vision of where they want this library to go? And does it mesh with your vision?

A: Yes, we’re very heavy into bringing us forward technologically-wise. We’re not as well endowed financially as other libraries, but it’s something that we’re looking into, [securing] a lot of grants. Being an historical building, we’re trying to do more renovations. So I’m learning about that now.

Q: Are you taking about the Robert Bacon Children’s Library?

A: Yes, but also this portion here, (pointing to the north facing part of the building). We have these beautiful bay windows on both sides, and we’re looking to have them fixed.

Q: What sort of things are you looking to do?

A: We hired a new IT consultant to help our head of technology, Chris Durrah. Before I even walked through the door, I told Chris, ‘You’re going to be my main focus this year.’ We can’t function without our infrastructure being strong. We’re very short-staffed in our technology department. And that’s something that we’re looking to enhance this time around—we’re looking to hire another staff member for [technology]. We’re getting an outside wireless access point that will allow us to do outside IT programs since we don’t have anything in-house. It will be on 24/7 so that even when we’re not open patrons can come hang out in the courtyard or use the parking lot and have access to the internet. We just purchased 22 new computers to replace staff and public computers. So that will bring us up to date.

Q: What about in-person programming?

The lobby at the Westbury Memorial Public Library, with the check-in desk. Patrons are limited to 30-minute visits, and one hour on the computer. They must be masked and have their temperature checked upon entering. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

A: I’ve sat down with [programming director] Edna [Harpaul], who so badly misses her Sunday programs and her patrons. Number one, in every department we’re looking to do outside programming. A normal craft program for kids is 24-25 kids. So we’re doing two different times with 12 kids each. We’re going to have gardening, cooking classes, exercise classes outside. We’re looking to bump up our computer classes. We’d like to open up a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lab. Acquire a good computer for photography and video. We’re looking to start out small and not limit it to one group. We’d like to include everybody. STEM labs are open to interpretation and there’s so much you can do. All the way from crafts to high-end computers. That’s one of our wish list items. We’re hoping to get back to [fully in-person]. We’ll see how it goes. With nice weather coming up it will be a nice ease-in to everything.

Q: What’s the future of books? Do you see a decline in libraries actually holding physical books, given the finite shelf space?

A: Well, no. We had patrons who turned to e-books during the pandemic because they had to. But they couldn’t wait to come back into the building and physically take books out again. I’m the same way. I’m one of those people who, when I travel, I’d like to bring 10 books with me, but it’s not realistic, and I have my iPad. But I would rather have a paper copy too. Books started being ordered with a vengeance when the library reopened. Audio books went from 98,000 to 215,000. Belonging to [the Nassau Library System] enables us to borrow from other collections. (Patrons can log in the library’s website and use Libby to order digital and audio books.)

Q: You’ve been in library business for nearly 25 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen?

A: Depends on what part of the library. The changes are not widespread, but depend on the individual library. Technology is booming. Children’s departments are always in use. They love story times, craft programs. The teens are always the tough group. That’s something that I want [to work on] with Allie Browne, who’s our teen librarian. I used to be a teen librarian, so I look forward to [serving teens] because we’re right across the street from the [Westbury] Middle School. We’re looking for new things that we can do for them.

Q: Where do you see the future of libraries in the community?

A:With everything that comes out now, we always need to be two steps ahead, especially to remain relevant. We’ve turned into community centers. We’re probably going to turn more instructional for certain things. Especially right now, with people who are out of jobs and job hunting. They come in for career counseling and certain kinds of career training. They have resumes that they need to be beefed up. And not everybody can afford to go to an outside person to do this.

Q: Before you came on, three board members abruptly quit before their terms were over and the library director resigned after serving for about a year. There seemed to be conflict behind the scenes. Were you aware of this?

A: I only started in mid-October, so I missed anything that was going on with that. And you know how it is when you walk into a new place—you get a lot of hearsay from a bunch of different people. I know that those board members are no longer with us. It’s a whole brand new crew who started in July, so they’re brand new to this as well. I’ve been in the library field a long time. Boards come and go. They’re made up of people. Everybody has a different personality. Some boards are absolutely outstanding. Others don’t always mesh well. The board has changed.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I’m just looking forward to meeting our patrons. We’ve been averaging about 70 people a day, which is good. Curbside pick-up is still very busy. The patrons have been absolutely wonderful—following procedure. They feel safe and comfortable, which the staff appreciates. The building size is a lot bigger than it seems, so we’re able to spread out. Which is great. You want your staff in the building. It’s been rough on everyone.

The historic children’s library will need upgrading, according to Van Dyne. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)
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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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