The Washington Post

In Fairfax County, protests over dumping of library books could not be hushed

In August, after hearing reports of large-scale book dumping, Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth went to the library’s Chantilly technical operations center and found another trash bin full of books. She pulled a box of them out and took them to Fairfax library officials, seeking answers. (Courtesy Linda Smyth)

The parking lot was jammed, cars snaking along the road and into the neighborhood.

The meeting room in Annandale was packed, with a satellite location for the overflow audience.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Two police officers in body armor stood guard.

This mob at George Mason Regional Library could get unruly, I guess. That’s what happens when you toss 250,000 books into trash bins.

The Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees got a much deserved earful Wednesday night from patrons outraged that the system’s road to modernization included offloading surplus books like garbage.

When one of the wealthiest counties in the nation trashes a quarter-million books, that’s nothing but arrogance and laziness. Smaller libraries, veterans hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and underfunded schools could all use those books. In fact, there are plenty of people in Fairfax who could use those unwanted tomes.

“Don’t Take Away Our Books,” declared one protest sign, laced with little hearts.

The photos shocked people. There was a sad “Harry Potter” book, bent at a spine-cracking angle, amid about the thousands of others. This tugged at the hearts of bibliophiles who swarmed the board meeting to demand answers.

The dump was part of a “strategic plan” makeover to absorb budget cuts and the changing way that people use the library, county officials had explained.

Along with trashing books that Fairfax libraries don’t have room for — they used to give most of those excess books to the Friends of Library groups that either sell them or donate them to needier groups — they were planning huge cuts in staff and eliminating the requirement that their librarians have master’s degrees in library science.

Aha. Now we get another visual: discarding librarians like those books.

The continuing coverage of this crisis by The Washington Post’s Tom Jackman was the talk of Fairfax this week.

“I’m bringing these books to donate now, but after reading all that, I have to wonder, what’s the point?” said Falls Church resident Jim Chase, 69, who is semiretired from the construction business and an avid reader in his wiser years.

He carried two bags of books — one to return, another to donate. Or dump? He was worried.

We chatted outside the Tysons-Pimmitt Regional Library on Wednesday afternoon. It is a place that is packed and humming with activity throughout the day.

“I thought librarians are the guardians of books. I don’t understand why any of them would do this,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

And that’s pretty much how most of the people I talked to in his demographic felt.

But how about the kids with cool Kitson T-shirts and neon backpacks who came to the library after school?

“I just use the computer,” said one of them, before he put his earbuds back in — annoyed with me for making him take them out — and skulked off.

Books, libraries, information, all that is changing. We know that.

Inside the George Mason branch on Wednesday night, the computers were all fired up. There was a bent-over, parchment-skinned old man on a dating Web site, youngsters using Wikipedia, a Latino couple looking at rental homes.

My kids came with me to the meeting. (“Hooray! Not the homeless shelter this time, Mom,” one said.)

The first-grader was frustrated that the book he was supposed to finish, but forgot at home, wasn’t on the shelf. The entire “Lunch Lady” collection was missing. Had the Lunch Ladies been dumped, too? No worries. The library has blazing-fast WiFi, so we punched it up on our e-reader to download the book.

But is this where libraries are headed? A WiFi station for e-readers and a computer bank?

There will be a bookless future. Like, Star Trek future. Or maybe even sooner. Texas — yes, Texas — is taking us there: The flight-deck-looking BiblioTech, a bookless library, opens Saturday in San Antonio.

But in that future, if you can’t get a signal or your e-reader is out of juice, you’re out of luck. And it’s at that moment that the paperback in your bag never felt so good.

My fourth-grader, meanwhile, delighted in getting a big stack of books and browsed through them, relishing that uniquely bookey smell of pages the way I did as a kid.

The truth is, libraries need to change. And as the world is digitizing and speeding up, libraries don’t always handle the change gracefully.

The same outrage happened in Fresno three years ago, when a library dumped 22,000 books to make room. It happened in San Francisco way ahead of the trend, in the 1990s. And in Philadelphia — always a leader in dysfunction — in 1997.

The truth is, we are a nation of book lovers, knickknack gatherers and sentimentalists. We’re not ready for everything to look as stark as the Apple store.

Leigh Dameron is a great example. He grew up going to that Annandale library. And he showed up Wednesday night, Oakley shades on top of his head, a “Quality Libraries” sticker slapped on his broad, 29-year-old chest.

“I love this library. And I need books,” he said, waving the thick “History of the Dallas Cowboys” tome he just checked out. He’s a home health aide, and he reads voraciously on his night shifts to stay awake.

“But when I’m online and I’m researching these databases, I need a real librarian, someone who knows what they’re doing, to guide me,” he said.

“And those used books? They can sell them in bulk if that’s easier,” he said.

He was there for the meeting (and the football book) and he was among the crowd that cheered wildly when the board voted to suspend the modernization program.

They nearly knocked off their own glasses cheering when the board announced that “every usable book is either resold or redistributed.”

A strategic plan to keep pace with evolving technology is necessary, but it has to be done the right way.

“Our tax money bought those books in the first place,” said Chase, the construction guy/bookworm. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to treat them with respect.”

For previous columns, go to


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
What can babies teach students?
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Play Videos
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Is fencing the answer to brain health?
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
How a hacker group came to Washington
The woman behind the Nats’ presidents ‘Star Wars’ makeover
How hackers can control your car from miles away
Play Videos
Philadelphia's real signature sandwich
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Europe's migrant crisis, explained

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.