|Annandale children make a statement at the Library Board meeting.|
The key agenda item that drew the crowd was the Fairfax County Public Library’s Beta project, which library employees charge would result in reduced services to the public and a narrower role for professional librarians.
As requested by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (BoS) Sept. 10, the library board voted unanimously to postpone the beta project until there is adequate input from the library staff, the public, and other stakeholders. The BoS also directed the board to modify its plans to take into account the results of the outreach effort, report back to the BoS on Nov. 19, and, in response to outrage over the discovery of thousands of library books in dumpsters, give discarded books to friends groups.
According to Library Board Chair William Jasper (Lee), the Beta project will remain on hold until there is action by the board to resurrect it or parts of it. “This is going to give us a chance to take a deep breath and regroup,” said board member Elizabeth Clements (Mason).
FCPL has planned to implement the Beta project at the Reston and Burke Centre libraries in preparation for bringing it to all county libraries. It calls for combining libraries’ research and customer service functions, reducing the professional qualifications required for library employees, eliminating specialized staff for children’s programming, and making major changes in employees’ job descriptions and the staffing structure.
Jasper announced plans to create an evaluation and communications committee to look at “where we are, where we want to go, and how we will get there.” The committee will be chaired by library board member David Ray (Braddock) and will include among its members library board members Susan Thorniley (who represents Fairfax County Public Schools) and Mary Petersen (City of Fairfax).
Jasper also created another committee to review FCPL’s policy for discarding surplus books. It will be chaired by Clements, and its members will include Margaret Koplitz (Providence) and Donald Heinrichs (Mount Vernon).
“Changes are going to occur,” said Ray. “Not everyone will get what they want.” But change has to happen the right way—with public input—to ensure that “libraries meet the needs of the community,” he said. Karrie Delaney (Sully) noted that “in tough economic times, people need libraries more than ever.”
Petersen said she has two concerns with the Beta project—the “deprofessionalization of staff” and the “starving the beast” approach to the budget. The library budget has been declining every year. In 2007, it was 1.05 percent of the county budget; in 2012, it was down to just .7 percent. She quoted one of the commenters on the library changes, who said, “let’s talk about better, not Beta.”
During the public comment period at the Library Board meeting, Jane Ampah, secretary of the Fairfax County Public Library Employees’ Association and youth services manager at the George Mason library, urged the board to stop the Beta project and retain children’s services. She agreed that libraries should adapt to new technology but said the Beta project “uses a hammer where a scalpel is needed.”
Mary Zimmerman, who served as president of the Friends of George Mason Regional Library for 34 years, urged the board to reconsider the Beta plan because ”it will not serve the citizens of Fairfax County.” As a retired history professor at Northern Virginia Community College, Zimmerman worked with students who had trouble with term papers. The internet has made research “much more difficult” for students as they need more help assessing credible sources, she said.
Nancy Allard, co-chair of the George Mason friends group, noted the frustration from staff and the public that surfaced in comments to news and blog reports and an online petition, and that means FCPL needs to do a better job of explaining how changes in policy will affect all of the services libraries provide. She also said the plan should have been tested in libraries that serve a more diverse and less affluent population.
Kathy Kaplan, chair of an ad hoc committee on libraries created by the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations, questioned why Fairfax, one of the richest counties in the nation, keeps cutting the FCPL budget. “You have a sacred trust to protect the libraries for the people,” she told the board.
Tresa Schlecht, a member of the board of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, warned that changes implemented quickly without adequate information could end up costing more in the long run. She called the FCPL’s rush to implement the Beta project “penny wise and pound foolish.”