The revelations that the Fairfax County Public Library was throwing away hundreds of thousands of books, and was testing a plan that would reduce the number of librarians in its libraries, sparked an uproar in September. The Fairfax board of supervisors asked the library’s board of trustees to take a step back, solicit input from the public, and report back to the supervisors. That report is coming from board of trustees chair Willard O. Jasper on Tuesday morning.
The uproar had been caused by a couple of things: The plan to switch to a “floating collection,” in which books do not stay at one branch but instead stay where they are returned; and the “beta plan,” which was an attempt to test staff reduction and cross-training staff in several specialties at two library branches. While the system was switching to a floating collection, no discarded books were supplied to the “Friends of the Library” groups at the branches, who would resell them, and Dumpsters full of seemingly high quality books seemed like an awful waste. The “beta plan,” which had not been voted on by the trustees, upset patrons who felt that services, particularly to families with children, would be sharply diminished and also upset library employees whose jobs would be made harder, less interesting, lower paying or all of the above. The requirement of having a master of library science degree-holder at each branch would have been eliminated. Library director Sam Clay said the changes were part of an overall “Strategic Plan” needed to keep the libraries vibrant as their budgets declined by nearly a quarter over the last five years.
The trustees formed two subcommittees, the “Floating and Weeding” subcommittee to deal with the discard issue, and the “Evaluation and Communications” subcommittee, to reevaluate the “beta plan.” The trustees and deputy county executive Dave Molchany all expressed distaste for the beta plan, and also felt they needed to press the supervisors for more money, according to one of the meetings I attended. The trustees said Fairfax spends, per capita, among the lowest amount on its libraries in the D.C. region.
But there continues to be suspicion among library patrons and employees that the library will plunge ahead with its plan to lower hiring standards, reduce children’s librarians and continue to eliminate books in order to create space for computers and social gatherings. A report by a committee of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations notes that the overall Strategic Plan calls for a transition from print books to digital books, even though digital books cost $85 and can only be used 25 times before they expire, and most books are not available digitally. The report noted that culling of books is not reviewed by branch librarians, that nearly 13,000 juvenile and young adult books were pulled from the Pohick branch. Report author Kathy Kaplan also found that the collection at Reston Regional had been decreased by 17 percent in recent years, and at the Woodrow Wilson branch by 41 percent.
And when Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova published a letter in the Connection newspapers congratulating the trustees for revisiting these issues, she apparently was slammed by a number of employees and patrons. On Monday, Bulova sent out an e-mail wondering “how what was meant to be a positive, supportive letter was interpreted to indicate that I am somehow repudiating the good work of the groups.” Bulova assured her e-mailers that “I understand that the objectionable issues associated with the reorganization have been taken off the table. I am prepared to accept the recommendations of the Board of Trustees tomorrow, to include requesting that an increase in funding be incorporated into the library budget for the next fiscal year.”
We’ll see what happens after Jasper’s presentation on Tuesday, both with the library’s strategic planning and the county’s funding of the library system.