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.”
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?”