Becoming the leader of a community library under normal circumstances is no easy task — doing so during the Covid-19 pandemic brings unprecedented burdens.
Susan Santa took over the directorship reins of the North Merrick Public Library on Sept. 28, in the midst of new, limited operations and programs to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. On Monday, she sat in her office while adorning a mask; papers were strewn across her desk as she settled into the start of her second week.
“I’m lucky. It’s a brand-new position for me — I’ve never been a director before. It’s a brand-new community and brand-new library for me,” said Santa, 58, of Locust Valley, “but the board of trustees has made sure I have everything I need, and Tom Witt, the outgoing director, has left me in such a wonderful position. . . . That’s been a lifeline for me.
“It’s very different now to start a new job,” she continued, “but we’re in a good place here.”
Santa said she plans to continue the programs and services that have made the North Merrick library a success while also wrapping up construction on exciting additions. For the most part, the library is now operating as normal — masks are required and there is a capacity limit, but patrons are welcome to browse and attend upcoming in-person events.
Santa’s library career began in 2001 at the Syosset Library as a page, a position she obtained by answering an ad in the local paper. There, she was moved to the circulation desk, where she eventually became a full-time employee.
After less than year, the library’s director created a position designed for Santa: the Community Services Information Assistant. In that role, Santa did a deep dive into the surrounding community with outreach and programming in the building and book discussions with seniors at assisted living centers.
The senior reading program, “Reading on Wheels,” was a major, “heartwarming” success for Santa. “It wasn’t just reading to them — we were interacting with each other,” she said. “It was lovely. It was the best part of my job.”
While in that position, “I realized I loved libraries so much — and I knew I wanted more,” Santa said. After obtaining her degree, she became a librarian at the Syosset Library and did further community outreach at nearby senior housing complexes to teach about medicine , including how to search for and find the most accurate information regarding health concerns, a task that would be especially beneficial now, she said.
Santa was then the head of reference at the Wantagh Library for less than two years before becoming the Assistant Director at the Shelter Rock Library, where she delved into technology needs and helped the staff adapt to modern procedures.
“Between the boards and communities, you really learn a lot,” she said. “While we’re all one island, each community is sort of a sea unto themselves.”
Now, as director of the North Merrick library, Santa has dabbled in getting to know community members, despite only being there for a week. “I’m a walker,” she said. “I’ve been walking around the building and finding [out] a little bit about our patrons, and it’ll be nice to welcome even more patrons back.”
Towards the end of the month, Santa will have the opportunity to meet many more of those community members. The library will be a site for early voting from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1 and for in-person general election voting on Nov. 3. Dozens of ballots are expected to be cast by Nassau County residents at the library.
For kids, a Halloween outdoor scavenger hunt will be open on Tuesday, Oct. 20 through Friday, Oct. 23. A list of clues will lead children to bags of goodies hidden throughout the library’s backyard area. Families are also invited to a drive-in showing of “The Addams Family” on Monday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.
New additions to the library will also be made under Santa’s supervision: A pathway is being constructed to accompany the library’s eventual garden space — a particularly exciting feature for the new director. “When I interviewed and learned about the pathway, I thought that was right up my alley,” she said. “I love getting out in a garden and getting my hands dirty.”
The young adult area inside the library will also be undergoing renovations.
“There are a number of challenges ahead at the moment, including operating the library during Covid-19,” said Dick Smith, president of the library’s board of trustees. “She has tough shoes to fill, but she’s doing an excellent job.”
In the meantime, Santa is looking forward to settling into the North Merrick community, she said.
“When I was interviewing, I took a day or two to drive and walk around [the neighborhood],” Santa said. “I said to the board, ‘This just feels like the kind of community I wanted to raise my children in.’ It feels like home.”