Fairfax library board to put its strategic plan to revamp system on hold, vice-chair says

September 11, 2013

Fairfax Supervisor Linda Smyth in her office last week with some of the books she pulled from a library Dumpster, while volunteer Friends of the Library groups were pleading for discarded books to sell or redistribute. A county library board member told the supervisors Tuesday night that the library’s “strategic plan” is now on hold. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss the outcry over proposed changes to the county library system, the vice-chair of the Fairfax library Board of Trustees said Tuesday night that “the entire matter of these changes will be put on hold” until the library board can get more input from library staff and customers.

The board Library Director Sam Clay this summer proposed a “Strategic Plan” to revamp the library system in order to deal with declining budgets and advancing technology. But the plan called for reducing staff in the branches, eliminating masters of library science degrees as a requirement for branch managers, eliminating bachelors degrees as a requirement for library assistants, and requiring children’s librarians to spend most of their time devising reading programs instead of working in the library, all of which brought criticism from employees and patrons. (NOTE: This post originally said the library board had approved the Strategic Plan. They have not. It is still under consideration.)

In addition, the library moved to a “floating collection” system this year and for seven months stopped providing discarded books to volunteer Friends of the Library groups for resale or distribution to the needy. About 3,000 books have since been provided to Friends groups, but about 250,000 books, many in good shape, were destroyed, county officials said. Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) held up some of the library books she rescued from a Dumpster in late August and said, “These should not have been in the Dumpster. And I don’t want to see that again. I don’t think anybody in Fairfax County does.”

The supervisors on Tuesday night were considering a resolution to ask the library board to stop the new Strategic Plan, and revisit the policy for disposing of books, when Vice-Chair Charles Fegan of Annandale was recognized. “I really do appreciate what you’ve uncovered,” Fegan told Smyth. “I’m a taxpayer too. I was quite concerned; I learned of it through the papers.”

Fegan said the library board was aware of the concerns raised about the strategic plan, and that “the library board will decide tomorrow, it’s been informally passed around, that as of tomorrow the entire matter of these changes will be put on hold.” Fegan said the board would hold a “staff day” where library employees can provide their input. “I’m very pleased the community concerns itself so much.” He said the library board had a target date of Nov. 15 to complete a revision of the strategic plan and report back to the Board of Supervisors.

Smyth asked, and the board agreed, for the library to review its policy on dealing with discarded materials. Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) pointed out that the policy should not be left to the library board, that all Fairfax agencies should have a consistent policy on how to discard taxpayer-purchased assets. Fegan said the library board was going to consider putting together an ad hoc committee to “review any policy that is currently on the books for disposition of an asset.”

Though Fegan said the library board was going to put a hold on the new library plan, the board proceeded with its motion to ask the board to do so, and also to review the policy on disposition of books. Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) was the only dissenting vote, saying that “we’re setting a dangerous precedent” by intervening in the strategic plan process. He said a pilot project at Burke Center library was already proceeding smoothly, and that “we’re in a difficult environment, we’re asking [staff directors] to be creative, and we step in the way…I personally would commend [library] Director Sam Clay for his leadership.”

The supervisors’ motion then passed shortly after 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, near the end of a lengthy day of business.

The library board of trustees is still scheduled to hold a meeting to consider the strategic plan on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at George Mason Regional Library.

The issue of discarded books began angering local Friends of the Library groups earlier this year when they were told they could not salvage books from their branch’s discard pile, and instead had to wait until they were sent to the technical operations center in Chantilly. In April and May, Tysons-Pimmit Friends volunteer Tresa Schlecht took photos of piles of books in the Chantilly Dumpster, and in late August, Smyth took some shots of her own. Here are some of those photos:


Photo taken on April 27 by Tresa Schlecht of the Tysons-Pimmit Friends of the Library in the Dumpster behind the Fairfax County Public Library’s Technical Operations Center in Chantilly. From October through April, no discarded books were released to volunteer Friends groups for resale or donation. (Tresa Schlecht)

Photo taken May 16 by Tresa Schlecht of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Library, showing a mostly full Dumpster of what she described as largely salable and usable books. (Tresa Schlecht)

Photo taken by Fairfax Supervisor Linda Smyth on Aug. 29 of books still filling up the Dumpster outside the Fairfax library’s Technical Operations Center in Chantilly. The next day, the county ordered that book trashing be stopped. (Linda Smyth)
Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998. In 2011 he launched The State of NoVa blog, a state strictly defined as the boundaries of four counties and one city: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Alexandria.
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Mark Berman | September 10, 2013