|George Mason Regional Library.|
Following a meeting with library representatives last week, Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova said she agreed with their concerns that they should have been given an opportunity for input on the policy changes before they take effect.
“That’s where I agree—getting feedback from the community and from the library staff is important,” Bulova said. The changes “should be put on hold or slowed down a bit so we can get some more feedback. It’s important to have buy-in from our workforce.”
That meeting included representatives from the Fairfax County Public Library Employees Association and the Fairfax County unit of the Service Employees International Union.
Bulova agreed to talk to Fairfax County Public Libraries Director Sam Clay “and suggest he may want to do some outreach to libraries to get feedback on the changes he’s proposing and that might be a good next step.”
Libraries need updating
When it comes to the actual policies, though, “all of us were in agreement that libraries do need to modernize as a result of changes in the way people get information,” Bulova said, noting that people do research online.
“One of the things that the group I spoke to seems to be comfortable with is the single desk,” she said, referring to Clay’s plan to combine librarians’ research function with customer service activities like helping patrons check out books. “It probably is a good idea to do some reallocation of staffing,” Bulova said.
Bulova did recognize employees’ concerns that downgrading the professional qualifications of library staff—such as no longer requiring people to have a master’s degree in library science—might make it difficult to recruit high-quality staff. “That’s a good point; that’s a fair concern for them to raise. I’m interested in hearing Clay’s response,” she said.
Although library employees and supporters said the policy changes are being driven by the need to cut costs—and budget concerns are cited in Clay’s PowerPoint presentations—Bulova said, “it’s not so much about budget cuts. It’s more about the need to modernize libraries and change the way they function and should be staffed in order to best serve the community.”
Outreach to the public
Library supporters are hoping to bring as much public attention to the policy changes as possible before the next meeting of the library board of trustees, Sept. 11 at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale.
Library advocates were pleased that at the board’s July 10 meeting, the board delayed for a month a “beta project” to pilot-test the single-service desk and other changes at the Reston and Burke Centre libraries but would like to see it delayed even longer to provide provide more opportunities for employee and public engagement, said Charles Keener, who works at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library and is active on that library’s friends group.
“We are focusing on lobbying the board before the September meeting since crucial decision will be made then,” said Keener. “We also need a big turnout of our supporters and plan to line up speakers to voice our concerns.”
“No job in the library system will require anyone to have a degree in library science,” said Keener. “No jobs will be called ‘librarian,’ and they are getting rid of children’s librarians.”
Under the customer service model, there will be one group of employees who stay in the back room and do office work, said Keener. Another group will be on the customer service desk, and a third group will be do programming and outreach for all people of all ages, but won’t need any specific children’s experience. “I’m really concerned about that,” he said.
While current employees aren’t expected to be laid off or see an immediate pay cut, they would be reclassified a few years down the road, said Keener, who is planning to retire next year. They would keep the same salary, but the maximum salary for that position would be about $10,000 lower, which would reduce their opportunity for raises.
“There is a lot of anger, fear, mistrust, and uncertainty,” he said. In his 40 years of experience in the Fairfax County library system, “the morale is the worst I have ever seen.”
He notes that some low-level employees who expressed their concerns on an internal blog for library staff were surprised to receive phone calls directly from Clay. “People thought that was intimidating,” Keener said. “That puts a chill on people willing to share their concerns.”
The Last of the Librarians blog offers more insight into Fairfax County librarians’ concerns.
No more librarians
Representatives of several of the friends groups met at the Tysons-Pimmit library July 26 to ensure that everyone has accurate information and to figure out what those organizations and individuals can do to “affect implementation of the proposals,” said Nancy Allard, co-president of the Friends of George Mason Regional Library.
“We’re not opposed to everything in the proposal,” Allard said, but there is general concern about the lack of input from library staff and users.
Speaking as an individual, and not for the friends group, Allard said, “it is misguided to think you can have a library without professional librarians.”
“The idea of a simple one-stop service for routine-type questions like renewing a book makes sense,” she said, but “you still need people with expertise in children’s needs and reference librarians for more complex questions. I’m also concerned with their optimism on how well a branch can be run with extremely limited staff.”
“I’m disappointed the library board and library administration haven’t clearly identified other options they have considered to save money and shared them with the public,” Allard continued. “My biggest concern is they are radically reinventing the library to deal with the current budget situation and not getting enough input to make sure the library will serve those it’s meant to serve.”
The representatives from the friends groups agreed to identify three or four of the most critical issues and develop a common message to share with members of the library board and board of supervisors.
The head of the library employees’ association and representatives of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Library met with Providence Supervisor Linda Smyth July 26. According to Keener, Smyth expressed concerns about the lack of opportunity for public input. She said the public needs to be educated about this issue and, because the summer is not a good time to seek public involvement, implementation of the beta project should be put on hold until that can happen.