Q&A with Loudoun County’s library director

January 28, 2013

As director of the Loudoun County Public Library, Chang Liu oversees a system that has seven branches and is about to add an eighth: The Gum Spring Library in the Stone Ridge community in Dulles South is scheduled to open Feb. 23.

Before coming to Loudoun in February 2011, Liu, 48, worked for libraries in St. Louis, Arlington County and the District. She was with the Loudoun system from 2001 to 2003, when she was assistant director for public services.

Chang talked recently to The Washington Post about the current state of the county library system.

What trends are you seeing in the library system?

We are very lucky that, because of our population increase, our book circulation is very steady. We have not seen a dramatic decline of book circulation, so our traditional values are still being utilized by the public. We have seen tremendous increase in e-content . . . which includes downloadable books and the e-books.

We just recently purchased a downloadable music service called Freegal: It’s free and legal. This allows our patrons to download up to three songs or three tracks [per week] into their personal device of any kind, and then they are the patron’s to keep, unlike e-books, when after two or three weeks they disappear from your device. And Freegal allows you access to 3 million tracks. No library can have 3 million music CDs.

The library’s collection is becoming so much more diverse. So we have basically the best of both worlds. We have traditional books and magazines, DVDs, all the things you expect from a library. At the same time, we also have been very progressive in Loudoun County, very forward-looking, trying to make sure that we keep up with the expectations of our patrons.

What do you see as the future of libraries as we transition from books to digital media?

First of all, I think books are here to stay. I do believe in the value of public libraries as gathering places. Not a community center per se, because I don’t want people to think we’re the same as a parks and rec community center. It’s a community gathering place; it’s a neutral place where people can come to learn, to discover, to have a discussion, to dream.

We want to really give people access to information and ideas and knowledge so that they can in turn become productive citizens of the society. The sky is the limit when you come to the library. You can learn about anything; you can explore any topic. And I think that’s something that needs to be continually celebrated.

A couple of years ago, the library began charging fines for overdue materials. How is that working out?

That has been a non-issue since I came. Maybe in the beginning we had some complaints from the public, just because they were not used to paying fines. Since it is the norm in the public library world that people pay fines, I always tell people, “It’s free to check it out. You only accumulate fines if you don’t bring it back on time or you forgot to renew.” We also make renewing very easy for patrons. So in collecting fines, we’re not trying to make money or make a profit. It’s just a way of encouraging you to bring things back on time so that other people can enjoy the materials.

What are the busiest branches?

It’s still Ashburn, but we expect Gum Spring to overtake Ashburn in no time. Gum Spring is 40,000 square feet, while Ashburn is only 23,000. And the Gum Spring Library [will have] a dedicated teen center, just like the Rust Library.

Is there any news with the library branches?

The Middleburg Library Advisory Board has been raising money to double the size of the Middleburg Library, and they’re almost there. They’re coming to [the] board of trustees meeting to say that they have met their fundraising goal and they would like to commence construction. And that’s completely a private grass-roots citizens’ initiative. They are raising all the money needed to double the size of the Middleburg Library, including the design, the construction and the interior fit-out.

The Sterling Library is a little different from the other branches, as an older, smaller branch serving a densely populated area.

What do you see as the future of the Sterling Library?

We definitely have enhanced service in Sterling Library. We have had a new branch manager there for the past six or seven months or so who has really reenergized the staff and also cleaned up the library a lot. We have new carpet; we’ve reconfigured the shelving. We have bought a lot of new furniture for that library, so it looks 10 times better than before, because we realize how important it is to that particular community. And, eventually, I would like to further enhance the service by enlarging the Sterling Library.

It was in the Capital Improvement Plan to have a brand new library [in Sterling], but that plan has been temporarily suspended because the current Board of Supervisors realized that we needed a bigger space, and parks and rec also needs some additional space, and the fire and rescue department also needs some space. So the Board of Supervisors is being very prudent to say, “Why don’t you work together, have a mini-master plan.” And that’s what the capital projects department has been working on. So the medium and long-term goal is to really enhance the service in that area.

As you begin this year’s budget process, has there been any talk about closing branches or shortening hours of operation to save money?

This year, we have not heard anything like that. Since we are supported by taxpayers’ money, we always have to justify our existence . . . to really provide the best return on investment we can for the county.

We did a rough calculation last year, looking at what people check out, how much they would have to pay if they had to buy those books or how much they would pay if they had to pay to rent a meeting room for their community meetings, or how much they would pay to attend a concert or author event. [It] came out that the return on investment would be more than $30 for every one tax dollar. So we are very proud of our contribution to the community, and I think we really deliver great value.

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