Fairfax library system suspends strategic plan, will review book discard policy


After hearing reports of large-scale book dumping, Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth went to the library’s Chantilly technical operations center and found a trash bin full of books. She pulled a box of them from the dumpster and took them to Fairfax library officials, seeking answers. (Courtesy Linda Smyth)
September 12, 2013

The Fairfax County library’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday night postponed implementation of a plan to revamp the library system, while an overflow crowd concerned about both the plan and the trashing of 250,000 library books cheered.

Board Chair Willard O. Jasper read a resolution, passed the previous night by the Board of Supervisors, asking the library board to seek more community and staff comment before implementing the plan, which would affect staffing in several ways.

The plan would eliminate the requirement that branch managers have a master’s degree in library science, reduce staff positions and cut the hours when branches would be staffed by children’s librarians.

Library board members said they had not voted on the “beta plan” — the first step in the county’s new strategy for the system — and will not do so until at least Nov. 15.

The audience at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, including some people who watched the meeting on a hallway video monitor, applauded as the board approved Jasper’s motion to suspend consideration of the plan.

The plan was submitted by the longtime library director, Sam Clay, who said he had worked with branch managers and other staff to devise it, although some library employees disagreed with that assertion. Clay acknowledged that he, perhaps, had not gotten enough public comment.

The Board of Supervisors also has asked the library board to review the policy on discarding books, “to ensure that every usable book is either resold or redistributed.” That request also drew applause when Jasper read it.

The issue arose because members of volunteer Friends of the Library groups and Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) had photographed trash bins full of seemingly reusable books.

The library had suspended the sharing of books with Friends groups last October when it shifted to a “floating collection” system, in which books can move from branch to branch as they are borrowed and returned. Since May, when sharing of books resumed, the library has supplied 3,000 books to Friends groups, while discarding 20,000 a month to make room for new items.

After Smyth removed a pile of usable books from a trash bin Aug. 29, library officials told the branches to immediately stop discarding books. About 250,000 books have been thrown out since October, officials said.

But the discard issue is not part of the strategic plan, and the mass trashing of books was not discussed by the library board Wednesday night. Jasper said he was going to launch an “evaluation and communications committee, that now will determine where we are right now and where we want to go.”

Five members of the public spoke before the library board vote, urging members to put the plan on hold. Kathy Kaplan of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations told the board: “Libraries are sacred space. Books are sacred vehicles that transmit our culture. You are the trustees of the library. You have a sacred trust to protect the libraries for the people of Fairfax County.”

Mary Zimmerman, president of the Friends of the George Mason Regional Library and head of the group’s book sale for 34 years, said, “I really urge you strongly to reconsider the [strategic] plan because it will not serve the citizens of Fairfax County.”

Library patrons were troubled by proposals to reduce or eliminate full-fledged librarians in branches and reduce the presence of children’s librarians from 40 hours to eight hours a week, changes they said would significantly harm the level of service. Branch staff would be called “customer service specialists,” and some positions would require only an associate’s degree or an equivalent amount of work experience.

Clay said that a master’s degree would be “preferred” rather than required to open opportunities for others and that it was necessary to take steps to deal with declining budgets and advancing technology.

Current and former employees said they weren’t provided specifics of the plan until Clay presented it to them in June. Several branch managers spoke out at library board meetings in June and July.

Deborah Smith-Cohen, assistant branch manager at Patrick Henry Library, said: “By far the worst part of this process has been the inadequate communication with staff, the lack of an active role for staff in the development of solutions, and the dismissal of staff questions and objections over the past several months.”

Meanwhile, the library’s refusal to allow Friends groups to take discarded books and resell or donate them has created another controversy. Both county supervisors and library trustees said they had received e-mails and calls from the public.

At the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday night, Smyth held up some of the books she had pulled from the library trash 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.”

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