After years of budget cuts and tensions between officials and community advocates, Virginia’s largest library system is trying to reboot itself with a new director and a yet-to-be-written strategic plan.
“We’re coming out of a difficult time for our system,” said Karrie Delaney, the recently elected chair of a 12-member library board that has several newly appointed trustees. “This is the change that people have been waiting for.”
Jessica Hudson, 30, was hired as Fairfax County’s library director after a search that stretched for more than a year and included several applicants turning down the job or withdrawing from consideration.
Hudson began her $160,000-a-year position in June, after two years spent running the library system in Contra Costa County, Calif., which has a population slightly smaller than Fairfax’s 1.1 million residents. Her first library director’s job was in Tehama County, Calif., where she spent 11 months in 2011 before heading the library system in Nevada City, Calif., from December 2011 to April 2014.
In Fairfax, Hudson finds herself negotiating a sea of doubts and expectations as she attempts to restore faith in a 22-branch system that has seen declines in library-card holders and annual visits. Her goal, she said, is to bring Fairfax libraries further into the digital reading era while preserving the traditional print book model that many residents still treasure.
“We’re going to have to make sure that whatever areas of growth that we focus on are ones that have really good impact for us,” Hudson said. “We’re not going to have a ton more money in these next few budget years, so we need to be able to prioritize things.”
After the 2008 recession, county spending on libraries dropped from about $33 million a year to about $28 million. Last year, county officials added a one-time infusion of $2.6 million for kiosks and other improvements.
The reductions have meant shorter library hours and less money to buy new books, which in turn may have caused a dip in library usage.
Today there are about 50,000 fewer library-card holders in Fairfax County than in 2013, even as the county’s population has increased by about 10,000 residents. The number of total library visits has dropped by about 493,000 since 2013, to roughly 4.7 million last year. Library officials attribute part of that decline to the closure of the Pohick Regional Library in Burke last September for renovations that are scheduled to be finished in March.
This month, the Library Board of Trustees released a report on the system that was based on surveys of residents, library personnel and elected officials. The document is supposed to lay the foundation for the strategic plan that will be developed in coming months.
Among other things, residents expressed a desire for more children’s reading programs, more laptop and tablet computers, and better services for non-native English speakers, the report said.
At the same time, county library officials appear at odds with one another over whether the system should focus on its traditional print model or a model with fewer books on shelves, more digital reading options and more space inside libraries for other community uses.
The report captures the tension that has gripped the system in recent years, characterizing some advocates who have vehemently opposed weeding out outdated books from library shelves as a bullying force within the system, while calling library officials “defensive and individualistic, rather than inclusive and collaborative.”
“Stakeholder groups are more frequently in opposition of each other than in agreement,” the report reads. “Leadership is needed at all levels.”
Bursting with enthusiasm, Hudson hopes to address that void.
She plans to build on some technological improvements made to the system in recent years, including the addition of 3-D printers, as a way to make the library experience more appealing to tech-savvy users. She said that she also wants to explore the idea of purchasing more laptops and tablets, while leasing more books instead of buying them, to save on costs.
Though Hudson did not rule out program cuts in the future, she said she intends to be strategic about where they are made.
“I prefer as much as possible to try and spread out budgetary cuts so we’re having impact but it’s not so painful for any one particular group,” Hudson said. “Every budget dollar that we have goes toward some value for someone.”
Longtime library advocates said they are still unsure about the new director and even whether a fresh strategic plan is a good idea.
“Everybody wants her to succeed,” said Dennis K. Hays, head of Fairfax Library Advocates, a group of county residents pushing for more library funding. “We want her to be successful here and do well, but not at the cost of changing how the library operates.”