Fairfax County library revamps system, discards books, reduces librarians


In August, after hearing reports of large-scale book dumping, Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth went to the library’s Chantilly technical operations center and found another trash bin full of books. She pulled a box of them from the dumpster and took them to Fairfax library officials, seeking answers. (Photo by Linda Smyth)
September 9, 2013

Hearing complaints that the Fairfax County Public Library was throwing away tons of books, County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) decided to peer into a Dumpster.

Twice, she found stacks and stacks of high-quality books, bought by the taxpayers, piled in the trash. The second time, she filled a box.

Smyth knew that libraries discard books all the time to make room for new ones. But many libraries have volunteer groups that take the discards and resell them to raise money. Or libraries donate discards to shelters, schools or less fortunate towns and cities.

But as Sam Clay, Fairfax’s longtime library director, launched a plan to revamp the county system, no books were given to the Friends of the Library for seven months this year, and more than 250,000 books were destroyed, Smyth said.

“If I didn’t pick up some of these books,” Smyth said, “no one would believe it.”


Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth with some of the books she rescued from a Dumpster behind the Fairfax County library’s technical operations center in Chantilly, including a barely used 2010 Fodor’s guide to Mexico and a copy of “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Smyth took her box of rescued books to the Fairfax government center, dumped them on a county official’s desk and demanded answers. The next day, Aug. 30, a directive went out to all branches suspending the discarding of books. Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she is going to ask the library administration on Tuesday to put a hold on its new strategic plan until the board and the public have more of a chance to weigh in.

The discarded books have opened a broader discussion about the library’s long-term plan, which would eliminate the requirement for fully trained librarians, reduce branch staff and cut the amount of time children’s librarians spend helping families inside their libraries.

The plan has drawn criticism from current and former library employees as well as patrons, who say it reduces services and jobs. The critics also say that public and employee input was limited before a test version of the plan was launched.

Clay, who has been head of the Fairfax library system for 31 years, defended his plan as necessary to deal with declining budgets and to remake libraries in the digital age. The strategic plan lists the first part of its “future direction” as transitioning from “a print environment to a digital environment.”

Clay has proposed hiring librarians who may not have master’s degrees to run branches, hiring people without bachelor’s degrees to staff the libraries, and having children’s librarians spend 80 percent of their time devising and running outreach programs instead of working in the libraries. He said jobs would be eliminated by retirements and attrition, not by layoffs.

“We’ve got decrease after decrease,” Clay said. In the past five years, the libraries’ budget has been cut by 23 percent and library visits have declined about 10 percent. Circulation is down about 6 percent over that time.

“We’ve got to turn that around. . . . We’ve got to get the library in the community, to bring people to the table,” Clay said. “I want to be the table.”

Library patrons and employees are complaining loudly. At a recent Fairfax library board meeting, Jennifer McCullough, president of the library employees association, said the plan “does not require that every library have available staff who specialize in youth services. How does that serve the community?”

The Reston Citizens Association last month issued a resolution saying it “strongly opposes the . . . plan and calls for it to be cancelled.”

Clay said that he had involved branch managers and staff in devising the plan. Three community forums to discuss the library’s future were poorly attended, he said. “We will be conducting additional opportunities for staff and public engagement in the near future,” Clay added.

An efficiency and cost-saving measure instituted by Clay last fall was the “floating collection,” in which no book or other item is assigned permanently to a branch. It stays where it is returned, vastly reducing the cost and wear of shipping books back to their original branch.

When the program was launched last October, volunteer Friends of the Library groups were no longer allowed to review discards. Instead, all discards were sent to the Chantilly technical operations center. Minutes from a January branch managers’ meeting state that 100,000 books were removed from shelves in the first three months of the plan.

Elizabeth Rhodes, the system’s collection services coordinator, said Fairfax adds about 20,000 items a month and therefore must remove 20,000 to make room. Some items, such as reference books, are now available online and are replaced digitally, enabling the library to create room for other things, Clay said. In the Reston Regional Library, the reference area has been replaced with a “Teen Zone” marked by neon signs and stocked with a wall of Japanese graphic novels.

As books began disappearing from the shelves, Tresa Schlecht of the Friends of Tysons-Pimmit branch and others pleaded with library administrators to allow the Friends to rescue books, their e-mails show. Then Schlecht did her own literary Dumpster dives this spring, taking photographs of hundreds of books, including “Harry Potter” books and other seemingly desirable volumes, stuffing the dumpster in Chantilly.

“This is just as wasteful as I thought it would be,” Schlecht said. “My hobby is finding new homes for books,” including after-school programs in the District, religious schools and shelters, she said.

Clay and Rhodes said that books were provided to Friends groups again starting in May, and a county fact sheet said 3,000 discards have been provided. But at a rate of 20,000 per month, another 77,000 items would have been trashed in that same period. Schlecht and others were stunned that so many books were still headed to the landfill.

So Smyth did her own investigation. Among the items she found consigned to the trash were a pristine 2010 Fodor’s guide to Mexico, some large, good-quality art and gardening books, and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

“Maybe this is a good thing,” the supervisor said as she surveyed her rescued cache, “because we finally have people’s attention to talk about the future of libraries.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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