For years, the number of books in the Fairfax County Public Library system has steadily decreased, as the library budget has fallen and the system has tried to make room for other activities besides reading. Fairfax now spends, by far, the lowest per capita amount on its libraries of any jurisdiction in the Washington area.
The net loss of more than 440,000 books in the past decade has alarmed a group of ardent Fairfax book lovers, who have banded together to stop the library’s perceived decay. They want not only to preserve the collection — some of which has been replaced by e-books and databases — but also to fill dozens of long-vacant jobs in the libraries of one of America’s wealthiest counties.
"The reason we formed," said Dennis K. Hays, head of the Fairfax Library Advocates, "is because we want to keep doing everything to preserve our libraries. The reality is enormous numbers of books are being taken off the shelves and destroyed . . . With limited budgets, why would you cut down on the variety and availability of books?"
Similarly troubled by the shrinking collection, the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations has formally demanded an audit of the library collection, saying the system is so disorganized that there are discrepancies in the amount of books the county has and that officials can't say how many books they have in the system.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) and Library Director Samuel Clay insist the library is stable and thriving, but the relationship between the government and the library advocates is getting more contentious as budget season approaches. The Board of Supervisors responded to the citizens’ audit request by instead directing an audit of the volunteer Friends of the Library groups, which takes in donated books and resells them. This set off further outrage among library advocates, who met on Friday with Bulova to raise their concerns and who have also been meeting in recent days with state politicians to seek legislation protecting libraries.
“I’d be happy to put our library up against any library in Virginia,” Bulova said, “You’ll see quality. A low per capita cost could mean that we’re operating more efficiently than other jurisdictions. The customer satisfaction rate is 95 percent.” She said the audit of the volunteer Friends groups was merely sound financial management.
Library officials say their materials budget has been reduced by 50 percent since 2000 and that electronic books and databases have replaced hardbound books, particularly reference works, although the online materials account for only 4 percent of the collection. Even though the budget for books has decreased, the library still feels the need to weed its collection, resulting in net reductions of about 40,000 books a year. They said that staffing problems and a new circulation system have kept them from determining a 2014 total.
The library’s total collection has decreased from around 2.75 million items in 2004 to 2.4 million items in 2013, a drop of about 350,000 books, magazines and online materials, even as Fairfax added two new branches and electronic items to its system. The number of printed items, mostly books, has dropped by about 440,000 in that time, replaced by about 100,000 online items and e-books. If a book hasn’t been checked out for two years, Fairfax library officials review it for possible elimination in order to keep the collection fresh, Clay said.
“We’re not an archive,” Clay said. “We want to keep a vibrant, helpful, responsive collection. It’s part of what librarians do.”
The number of children’s books in Fairfax’s 22 branches has also plummeted, particularly outraging the activists. The library had about 1 million children’s books in 2004 and about 885,000 in 2013, an 11 percent cut. Shelves in the children’s areas of some of the county’s largest libraries, such as Reston and Fairfax City, are notably empty. Library officials said unfilled vacancies in the positions of selecting and ordering children’s books resulted in 20,000 fewer children’s books being ordered last year.
Of all the cuts, Hays said, “The biggest thing is children’s books. What sense does that make? Why are you culling these out unless they’re covered in jelly stains?”
Hays said he and his fellow advocates have been stunned that the county is resisting their pleas for a more thoughtful approach to dealing with the libraries. In most counties, citizen library supporters work together with the local library administration on common goals. But not in Fairfax. “Here,” Hays said, “we’re in the unusual position of opposing the library administration in the direction they’re going.”
Though Fairfax’s population has grown about 10 percent in the last 10 years, its library budget has plunged by 27 percent, according to one of many detailed analyses of the library done by Terry Maynard of the Reston Citizens Association. As a result, its budget of about $27 million results in a library expenditure of $24.10 per person, ranking it eighth out of eight nearby jurisdictions.
“The people of a wealthy county deserve quality library services,” said Kathy W. Kaplan, an activist honored as the Reston Citizen of the Year for her role in exposing the mass trashing of books in 2013. “If our elected officials are not willing to provide the quality library services that our neighboring jurisdictions benefit from, our elected officials should be replaced.”
Bulova said the recent recession had slashed funding to services across Fairfax, but the county was still able to open two new branches and renovate others. She said Maryland libraries get far more funding help from the state than Virginia provides but declined to say how neighboring Virginia counties were able to budget more per capita than Fairfax.
“We don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re able to have a low amount to provide an excellent service,” Bulova said. “It goes to efficiency.”
Maynard said the customer satisfaction rate was derived from brief surveys of a small number of customers. He cited library statistics showing that the system’s contacts with residents had dropped 31 percent since 2010, and that the percentage of county residents who have a library card has dropped 42 percent since 2004, “a generally steady downward spiral unaffected by either the boom or bust of the latter half of the last decade.”
The advocates noted that a large number of jobs have gone unfilled in the libraries, resulting in reduced services and stress on those who remain. Because of budget constraints, library officials said there were 66 unfilled jobs. Clay said the system was not attracting many applicants — Hays noted that the library has no job postings on the Fairfax County or American Library Association job sites — and Bulova said the vacancies were a way to manage costs during a slow economic recovery.
And though there was an uproar in 2013 when library supporters such as Kaplan discovered trash bins full of discarded books outside the technical operations center in Chantilly, Fairfax is again preparing to throw out large numbers of books it believes are no longer up to date or in adequate condition. The county has been informed that the company that purchased and resold its discards, Better World Books, does not want Fairfax's books and that beginning Feb. 1, the county's discarded books will again be trashed.
Fairfax would prefer to donate its unwanted books to the Friends of the Library groups at each of its branches, but only one Friends group, at the Tysons-Pimmit branch, takes the discards. The other groups have enough books just from the donations they receive from their customers.
Library officials offered a tour of their technical operations center, where they review books for timeliness and decay. Books that are discarded are “the dregs of our collection,” said Melanie Quinn, the library’s deputy director. Other schools or counties that might want books don’t want dirty or outdated volumes, she said.
“If we hold on to the things people aren’t using,” said Liz Rhodes, Fairfax’s collection services coordinator, “we don’t have the room for things people are using.” She said mending was too time-consuming and not cost-efficient. The goal, Rhodes said, is a balanced collection between what people want and what they need.
Clay said libraries also need more space for community meetings, tutoring and Internet use, a theme he has sounded since developing a strategic plan for the system in 2013. “I would venture to guess,” he said, “that the majority of our customers venture into our branch and don’t check out a book.”