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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bulova calls for more public input on library changes

George Mason Regional Library.
Library employees and members of library “friends” groups have been setting up meetings with public officials to express their concerns with major policy changes that would downgrade the professional staff and reduce services for library patrons.

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. 


  1. Thank you for another outstanding article. You are helping to bring the impending threat to our libraries out into the light of public scrutiny. That is exactly what needs to happen ! Everyone please share these articles widely...

  2. I agree! Thank you for recognizing the importance of this topic. I am heartened by the fact that these proposed changes are being taken very seriously and that all sides seem to be open to thoughtful consideration of changes and the implications of these changes. We love our libraries! {And librarians!}.

  3. Fairfax County has a population that is among the wealthiest and most well-educated in America - if any county should have fully staffed libraries it is this one!

  4. Fairfax County is one of the most educated in the country too - and almost all have internet access. Is Fairfax ahead of its time here also? How many of these books are ever checked out, and the power to heat and cool the space for all these unread books? I'm nostalgic but practical, books are going the way of the buggy whip, and the info on the internet for free makes it hard to imagine ever going back, as sad as that sounds. Most people in there are there for the internet or just a quiet place to study - do a headcount next time you are there.

    1. There may be a lot of free info on the internet but how much of that is accurate and reliable? There is A LOT of misinformation on the internet. Librarians can help people do a "reality check" to distinguish the fact from fiction.

      I am a library volunteer and shelve books so I can guarantee that plenty of people are still happily checking out books. Perhaps a portion of the population will choose to strictly read electronically but books themselves will continue to be popular for a few more generations at least.

      By the way, libraries periodically comb the shelves to get rid of unpopular titles. Even so, it's better to heat and cool a few unread titles than to not make any titles available at all.

  5. Try coming in on a Saturday or late in the afternoon on a weekday and watch people checking out books. I think you would be surprised at the numbers.

    Our Fairfax County libraries are treasures.

  6. The library does headcounts but they are called statistics and the ones available for Fiscal Year 2012 show a great deal of library use, including 13 MILLION loans of books. Also:
    495,831 registered customers.
    5,246,854 visits to library branches.
    13,034,816 items loaned.
    4,162,599 visits to the library's Internet website.
    172,630 people attended 8,934 events.

  7. Do you people truly not understand that the changes addressed are simply part of a test in two libraries--one community and one regional--that is supposed to, over a several month test period, figure out which IF ANY of the proposed changes in staffing work, and which do not? From what I've seen at the test community library as the changes are being, gradually and with considerable care, put into place--they take some getting used to but really aren't especially draconian, and they go a long way towards improving customer service at the single service desk and in terms of increased children and adult programming. Wait and see the complete test results, participate in evaluating pros and cons, and then engage in constructive dialog--don't just listen to the disinformation being spread by some individuals for whom every change seems to forebode doom.

  8. To what disinformation do you refer?

    There are two separate issues to consider in terms of the beta project: the one-desk model and the customer service specialist (CSS) job series. I am not opposed to the one-desk model. It has clearly been piloted at Burke with some success. However, they have not been using the new job series to staff it. The CSS positions are effectively a done deal. DHR has signed off on it, and my understanding is that it will move forward barring action from the Board. I don't think the CSS job series will adequately serve our communities or staff.. for more reasons than I have space to enumerate here.

    Technically, the proposed beta projects at Burke Center and Reston are meant to test assumptions made by those who developed the reorganization plan. However, none of the information provided by said administrators has given any indication that there is room for a major overhaul of the plan based on the results of the beta project. Rather, it seems that they are prepared to tweak it. Consequently, it is rather disingenuous to suggest that this is merely a test.

  9. Ms. Allard is incorrect when she states that the library board and library administration have not clearly identified other options.

    The Library Board of Trustees was instructed to cut 5 percent from the budget by County Executive Ed Long. FCPL Administration presented two alternatives to the Board: cut back the hours that had recently been restored or substantially cut the collections budget ("substantial" as in something like 80%--don't have figures with me right now). The Board didn't want to do either. They managed a deal for a smaller budget cut with the understanding that the library would save money by restructuring staff over time.

    Put simply, you get what you pay for. Budget cuts reduce the quality of the library, whether by reducing hours, the collection, or overall quality of services. Some hold the opinion that the Board and FCPL Administration have chosen the third option.

    They do not control how much money the library receives. The County Executive and the Board of Supervisors do. They merely make the decisions about how that meager pot will be distributed.

    I hope someone from Administration and/or the Trustees will clarify this.

    I am a librarian with FCPL. There are aspects of the workforce plan I do not agree with, but it does not serve staff or the public to have discussions in a public forum without a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.

  10. I'd say that there are three major issues: the one-desk model, the CSS job series, and the separation of tasks (workroom, front desk, programming). Generally, staff accepts the one-desk model, though there is definitely some tweaking needed.

    The CSS job series downgrades job positions in terms of education requirements and salary. It seems especially notable at the Information Desk which takes a two or three level downgrade. This isn't a Beta plan thing - this IS the new classification. How it will be applied is what is now in question.

    The third issue is the assumption that dividing tasks by workroom, front desk, and programming will allow for less staffing while maintaining quality customer service. This assumption is intensely questioned by staff actually working in the branches with current, daily experience. It's true that the beta projects may actually TEST these assumptions, but here it is notable that Burke Centre lost one position, but larger branches like Reston would lose five positions - including a separate and active youth services division.

    1. There was a change and Burke Centre will now loose 2 positions.

  11. Clearly you have not been to a Fairfax County library in quite a while. You, my friend need to take a look at the door count and ask about each branch's circulation (check-ins and checkouts). If you think people are there just to read a magazine or to get in from the heat you are sadly mistaken. With today's economy and the lack of jobs, people are there to educate themselves, and to do research, all for free. So get into a library, close your computer, or hang up your phone and look around. Maybe you can even check out a book about buggy whips?

  12. Libraries are so inexpensive, yet they generate so much value, including the most essential of all values: literacy. The decision to eliminate childrens librarians, those people who are specially trained to develop early literacy and a life long love of reading, is especially foolish. Anyone with knowledge of how children acquire reading skills understands that cutting access to books for the very young will cost millions later in remediation.

  13. Fairfax County is a well educated community that needs to keep a variety of services available to the many users of the library system. Surely there will always be a need for children's librarians to nurture and encourage the young listeners and reading of our community! Technology allows us to get and give information in a variety of ways and that is good but good storytellers and people filled with keys toward new reading experiences are critical. Let's continue to educate and employ outstanding librarians in Fairfax County.

  14. Library staff are NOT opposed to change. They have had to adjust to countless changes over the last few years due to relentless budget cuts and evolving technology. The issue is not the need for change. The issue is deciding WHAT CHANGE will be adopted and being sure that library users and front line library staff have a substantive role in those decisions.

    As it is now, radical changes are being railroaded through which most staff and public had NO INPUT on before decisions were already made.

    A big reason the libraries do not do better at budget cutting time is that there has been no vision and no leadership to include the public and rally that public to support their libraries. The current top-down, closed approach being pushed with these latest changes is a clear example of that lack of an inclusive vision and leadership. It has alienated staff and others like volunteers and Friends who want what is best for our libraries but feel the current path is way off course.

    This process needs to be OPENED UP! The proposals need to be DELAYED and REVISED with the active input and participation of library Friends and patrons as well as all levels of library staff who will be profoundly affected by the outcome. As Chairman Bulova suggested, you can not have a successful transition to major change without staff and public buy in. And you can not have that buy in by bulldozing and dictating from on high. Let's include all the stakeholders in this process and come up with something we can all be proud of !

  15. I think i is great that Sam Clay got in touch with the employees directly to further discuss their concerns. There has been a great deal of discussion over lack of communication. Clearly, he heard that and is acting on it. I hold a lower level staff position with FCPL and I have met Mr. Clay on a couple of different occasions. He is not an intimidating person. Let's stick to the issues and not issue personal attacks.

  16. Please sign the petition to save Fairfax County libraries: Kathy Kaplan

  17. If the county executive told the Library Board to cut 5 percent of their budget, how much were other county departments asked to cut? Is the Library the ONLY department being asked to reduce budget? There is no transparency in the budget to track HOW MUCH each agency is being cut. How can we get the information? It sounds like the Parks and Library are once again being asked to make cuts that other agencies are not being asked to make. Will Schools budget be cut? Waste Water? Facilities Maintenance?