Readers Write: A coup in an unlikely place, a library

The Island Now

In a column for the Long Island section of the New York Times, I coined the word bibliosanctum. It gives meaning from both its parts: a sanctuary for books and the learning they provide. It rings true for the Great Neck Library for most of its life, 132 years.

An exception in recent years began in 2007, a time marked by a revolving door of interim directors, acting directors, a terminated director, and a consulting director. That instability at the top of the library administration was accompanied by deplorable decisions by the board of trustees.

  1. In 2011, a dumpster appeared in front of Main and was filled with the library’s collection of bound periodicals (specialty magazines and scholarly journals) going back half a century, some irreplaceable and unavailable online.
  2. In 2012 through 2016, they discarded in secret, and by the truckload, 208,000 volumes (some first editions and some signed by the authors) with a value upwards of three million dollars, and deleted those books from the library database.
  3. They refused to pay the Great Neck Library’s dues to the Nassau Library System (NLS), making ours a library in poor standing and without the privileges that membership provides.

There was a welcome turnaround in 2020 when the current trustees accomplished our rejoining NLS. With the arrival of our new permanent library director in September 2021, we may soon see a return to a halcyon description of our library, but only if.

The annual Great Neck Library election took place on October 25. There was saber rattling  beforehand in letters to the editor, and there were ugly sentiments online, but none of that gave away the hidden danger to the library.

The annual election is usually for candidates, but this year the new generation of trustees put a proposition on the ballot to remove from the bylaws the Nominating Committee. This obscure in-house function with its generic name, this Nominating Committee, seems an unlikely battleground; yet, and nonetheless, control of the Nominating Committee equals control of the library, unseen. This is what was really at stake in the recent election.

In a community of over 40,000, the Nominating Committee has five members each serving three years. Each year they interview and select candidates to place on the ballot to be trustees of the library. The committee also selects candidates to replace themselves.

At the library’s beginnings in 1889, ours was a peninsula community largely agrarian and sparsely populated. It prospered in considerable measure by the good will of the moneyed owners of the estates. The library founders, mostly women, and their successors, created and perpetuated what must have seemed a foolproof system of library governance among themselves.

Long after the last estate became a suburban development, the Nominating Committee remains. Our library is one of few that retain this archaic system of internal control on the selection of candidates, which puts an independent candidate at a disadvantage.

An independent candidate gathers signatures on a petition in order to be placed on the ballot, the democratic process seen in elections everywhere. Only recently have independent candidates challenged the Nominating Committee choices.

In the October 25 election, voters selected Yes or No on a bylaw change to eliminate the Nominating Committee in the interest of fairness and equality. A clique of past trustees promoted a No vote by smearing current trustees and calling for their resignations.

The trustees for a No vote signed letters to the newspaper: Marietta DiCamillo, Josie Pizer, Francine Krupski, Michael Fuller, Joel Marcus, Varda Solomon, Robert Schaufeld. This group of seven was the composition of the board of trustees of 2016 (and years before and after). Now they are reassembling. Krupski took her place on the Nominating Committee in 2019, DiCamillo in 2020, to be joined in January 2021 by Pizer.

Meanwhile, those former trustees want the current board to rubber stamp pet projects conceived back then. But the current board has inherited lawsuits about the renovation of Main five years ago, so they are wary of plans that may have been poorly vetted.

One of those projects is landscaping and a garden at Main at a cost of 1.1 million dollars ($1,100,000). Even without its price tag, the landscaping project has daunting complexity and safety issues (in the wetland, at the water’s edge of Udall’s Mill Pond).

Another project is a refurbishment of the Parkville branch. In a time when building supplies are exponentially more expensive and the supply chain around the world is clogged, the current board has delayed the work at Parkville because it is not urgent.

The Parkville branch makeover is actually part of a system-wide attention to Main and the three branches spread over years, and now it waits on what has emerged as the library’s top priority: A twenty percent loss of staff. A critical shortage of staff translates to skeletal service and diminished programming now that the library has emerged from the pandemic. The new director faces a task that is both unusual and formidable: She must interview, hire, and integrate dozens of new staff members at the same time as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the former trustees, in an alarmist flyer, implied the Parkville branch is in “jeopardy” of being closed if it is not remodeled immediately. But the branch has been cared for at its present location in the school annex for 62 years, so not in jeopardy. The former trustees seem to think new shelving outranks staffing.

The former trustees brought local and national vitriol into the election. In a Great Neck community where a mayor or a commissioner could serve for years with the electorate having no interest in his/her political party affiliation, the voters who stormed into Main on October 25 determined to preserve the Nominating Committee were spewing these words: “The liberals have to be stopped…,” ”The library is promoting pornography…,” “The [public] schools are teaching sixth graders to have sex…,” and “Democrats are wasting our money.”

This sampling of epithets originates on the new fringe of the Republican party. Stupid, illogical, yes, and more noticeably stupid near the illuminated entrance to a library.

The Yes vote to eliminate the committee was about 60 percent but fell short of the two-thirds required. Despite that and despite the parking lot theatrics, the election held unintended value. It unexpectedly took the library’s Nominating Committee out of the shadows. It unexpectedly revealed a coup in the making.

So I say with confidence, the Great Neck Library is our once and future bibliosanctum.

Finally, here is the story of the discarded books, whose numbers reside in library board minutes:

Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar

Great Neck

About the author

The Island Now

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