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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Concerns about empty library shelves

George Mason Library in Annandale has lots of empty shelf space.
Library advocates are concerned about the increasingly empty shelves at Fairfax County libraries—and what an aggressive discard policy could mean for the future of the system.

That’s why a June 3 meeting of the Library Board of Trustees’ Communication and Evaluation Committee —7 p.m. at the Oakton Library—is so important.

Oakton Library [Photo by Kathy Kaplan]

The committee was formed to discuss the future direction of the library system based on input from stakeholders after the trustees voted last September to suspend Fairfax County Public Libraries Director Sam Clay’s “beta plan” to restructure the library system.

The Board of Supervisors (BoS) had directed the library board to scrap the beta plan following a huge public outcry over what library advocates saw as a downgrading of professional standards. The BoS called for FCPS to seek more public engagement on the future of the libraries.

The June 3 meeting is the only opportunity for public comment on an upcoming survey of library stakeholders that will be used to develop a new strategic plan outlining the future of the library system.

“It is extremely important that members of the community who care about libraries attend this meeting,” said library advocate Kathy Kaplan, a volunteer at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.

Lots of empty shelves have been observed in recent months at several libraries, including the George Mason and Thomas Jefferson libraries in Mason District, along with the Oakton, Burke Center, and Richard Byrd libraries in other parts of the county.

The BoS directed the library board to overhaul its discard policy last fall after the discovery of hundreds of thousands of books in good condition in dumpsters at the FCLP’s Technical Operations Center.

Even though a new policy approved by the board requires four signatures before a book can be discarded, Kaplan has recently seen bins full of discarded books at Tech Ops. Many of them were art books, children’s, and young adult books in very good to excellent condition.

Burke Centre Library [Photo by Kathy Kaplan]
The new policy doesn’t cover books that are transferred to another library, Kaplan said. “That’s the loophole FCPL Director Sam Clay is using to dump books.”

Books slated for discarding are supposed to be given to Friends’ groups for book sales to the public, but “Clay is still dumping books,” she said. “Books that are transferred from one branch to another are intercepted at Tech Ops and a considerable number are being dumped.”

“There is no reason for them to be dumped—except to continue to clear out the libraries of books,” Kaplan said.

Several advocates at a May 14 library board meeting at George Mason Regional Library expressed concerns about the empty shelves and what they see as destructive FCPL policies.

Tammi Petrine, a member of the board of the Reston Citizens Association, called for the community to be involved in the future of the library system and urged the trustees to take charge and protect the libraries.

“Books are valuable. If something is to be excised from our system, let it be those administrators who are NOT supporting, protecting, and growing our libraries,” Petrine said. “In my mind, beta has not gone away; it has gone deep underground. We are watching. We are awake. We are angry.”

Marcia McDevitt spoke about the devolution of culture and the loss of heritage when the library retains 149 copies of Fifty Shades of Gray and discards the last copy of a book about Lorenzo Ghiberti, the Florentine sculptor whose feud with Brunelleschi sparked the Renaissance. 

Ariel Kaplan addressed the dwindling numbers of young adult books in the FCPL collection and said many of her teenage friends in the western part of the county are going to better-stocked libraries in Loudoun County.

In response to the public comments at the meeting, the trustees said library patrons should contact their supervisors about the empty shelves and lobby for increased funding.

The trustees told the audience they have urged the BoS to provide more funding for the libraries but they are powerless to effect change alone. This is the first time in the past five years that the FCPL budget is not being slashed. The 2015 budget would add $250,000, and that is just because of the public outrage over the beta plan.


  1. Fahrenheit 451

  2. When one "reserves" a book, most times it arrives from another branch library. When it is returned, does it remain at the library where it is returned, or taken back to its original location?

    1. I think part of the "beta plan" was that books would not be returned to the original library, but would stay at the location where they are returned. I don't know if that went into effect or not.

    2. FCPL does have a floating collection, which means wherever a book is returned, that's where it lives. So if someone check something out from City of Fairfax Regional Library and then returns it at Oakton Community Library, the book stays at Oakton till it travels to another branch due to fulfilling a hold at that location, or because an Oakton patron happens to return it to another FCPL branch. So yes, the floating collection was implemented.

  3. NOVA Librarian5/21/14, 3:57 PM

    As a librarian (not in the FCPL system though), I would like to thank the library volunteers who are doing exactly what library advocates are supposed to do: keep an eye on and draw attention to crucial issues related to library collections and the library profession itself.

    As a librarian, however, I am hoping that we do not confuse a healthy dose of weeding (I call it "pruning") with dumping of books. A library needs to meet the educational and recreational needs of its users. A library is not a museum and should not be regarded as such. If library patrons are demanding books on Lorenzo Ghiberti, by all means add them or keep them based on your materials selection policy. However, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water by saying library users are "devolving" simply because they want to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Thank goodness for readers of all stripes!

    I do have real questions about the very confusing issues mentioned in this article and hopefully there will be some clarification at the Oakton meeting. For example, are the shelves really empty or is it user perception because books are not being returned to their home branch? If the Friends are requesting discards, why isn't FCPL offering the books to them? Why are FOUR signatures required on each book before it can be discarded when you have degreed librarians and (I hope) a transparent materials management policy? What does the collection development policy look like and what is the criteria being used for the weeding process? If the weeding goes beyond what is considered "healthy pruning" what would be the County's motivation? It's not clear to me...Less books means....less books to shelve?! Are dollars buying less physical copies of books each year? Is more money being spent on electronic resources?

    Perhaps advocates need to contact the American Libraries Association - hopefully they can assist by providing a "removed" assessment of this situation.

    We love our libraries! Thank you again to our library advocates and to our talented and hardworking FC Librarian and library assistants!!! And thanks to Ellie for continuing to cover this important issue.

  4. Yes it's been really disappointing lately ,every time I go to George Mason Regional there is hardly anything new and the old books are getting really old .I have enjoyed the library for many many years and have never seen such a dwindling collection.I guess they assume everyone is using electronic books not but that is not the case .According to a recent survey on the web,the majority of people still prefer reading books in print better.

  5. Jerry Herrera5/21/14, 9:08 PM

    The picture of an empty shelf at Burke Centre Library or any of the branches mentioned in the article does not tell the real story of what is going on in that branch. The person who took the picture did not even take the time to ask a library staff why that one shelf was empty.

    There could be a number of legitimate reasons why one shelf, out of hundreds, is empty: The branch could be in the middle of shifting, where shelves are added or books are "shifted" to make room for more; books are really checked out by customers and, because of the new policy of a "floating collection," books are returned at another branch and shelved at that branch; empty shelves are needed to make room for Summer Reading Program books, etc. Hundreds of shelves are overflowing in that branch so the need to make room has been a project for weeks.

    The manner in which the photos were taken and the way this article was written seems unfair to the branches that are mentioned. The reporter and / or the photographer should make the effort to get an explanation of why that one shelf in each library branch was empty.

    1. I took 18 photos May 9 at Oakton Library, children's and adult sections. The emptiness was profoundly shocking. Oakton is not my regular library. I was alerted to the empty shelves by a FCPL librarian who had dropped in and was shocked by the change and contacted me. I took my camera. Only one photo taken at Oakton was printed with this article. It wasn't just one shelf that was empty. All 18 photos showed empty shelves. I could have taken more. Go visit a few libraries in the county. Some are well-stocked--Herndon and Patrick Henry. Others are not. Come to the meeting June 3 at Oakton Library. We would like an independent consultant to design a survey of all the stakeholders that use the library. We need transparency in the process. And that means open, public meetings.
      Kathy Kaplan

    2. I returned some library books to Oakton Library yesterday and was very pleased to see that the children's shelves had been recently replenished with many additional books. Why not do this automatically when "empty shelf syndrome" becomes apparent? Leaving shelves empty for long periods negatively impacts circulation statistics which then reflect a distorted picture of how the library is being used.
      Kathy Kaplan

    3. NOVA Librarian5/24/14, 10:06 PM

      How does leaving shelves empty for long periods of time negatively impact circulation statistics? Are the shelves empty because there are less books in the system or are they empty because the books are checked out or are at other branches? When you write "replenished" do you mean with new books or books already in the system?

    4. Circulation statistics are compiled by branch. If there are fewer books on the shelves to be checked out, circulation statistics will go down for that branch. There are fewer books in the FCPL system. Between 2006 and January 2014 there has been a net loss of 460,522 holdings. That was at the same time two new branch libraries were opened (Oakton is one, Burke Center is the other). Because books float now, they are constantly migrating as people take them out from one branch and leave them off at another branch. Checking the branch tags on the backs of the books at Oakton this week, it would appear they were not new. New books no longer carry the old two-letter branch tags. I saw books from many branches on the shelves. And I did hear that books were brought in from other branches to replenish the shelves at Oakton.
      Kathy Kaplan

  6. Not worried. We have a very healthy library system that used by, God knows, how many people. Visit other places in our country or even our state and no one would be complaining.

    That said, they need more Jack Reacher books.

  7. The curation of the library’s 2 million plus collection certainly can be challenging as it isn’t possible to buy – or retain – every book that every customer has ever enjoyed or ever may enjoy in the future. The good news is in fiscal year 2015 we will be able to add $250,000 to the collections budget. So more new books are on the way.

    Libraries always have to evaluate and refresh their collections. This is done by removing items in poor condition or that contain outdated and inaccurate information. Overstocked and damaged materials that the library can no longer use is withdrawn from the collection and offered to the Library Friends Groups.

    More details on library collection guidelines can be found here:

    The public will have many opportunities to comment on the library’s future direction. We are in the early planning stages. The June 3 meeting of the ad hoc committee on evaluation and communication will discuss an extensive public survey the Board of Trustees is planning to conduct.

    The June 3 meeting is not about the library’s discard policy (as mentioned above); although the ad hoc committee on floating and discards will be meeting on June 4.

    You can see all of the upcoming Library Board of Trustee’s meetings here:

    Please join us at any of the upcoming meetings to stay involved and learn more about library operations.

  8. Do remember that the collections budget has been cut by the county over the last several years. On top of that the Youth Materials Selector retired last December and has not been replaced yet, so not as many new youth materials have been purchased the last few months.

    As another commenter said, the library is not a museum. County residents want to read the newly published books and bestsellers -- but to have those available, the library needs funding. The library also has to get rid of old, worn out, outdated, and inaccurate books in order to make room for the new books that residents actually want to read.

  9. People in Fairfax County are well-educated. We need more to read than just popular fiction. At the current time, books not checked out frequently enough (every 24-36 months) are put on a list for discard. Last fall many collections of great American poets were discarded. Nonfiction books (like poetry) take a big hit when culling by date. Big art books that people like to read in the library are especially vulnerable. $250,000 won't add all that many books to branch collections. Divided by 23 branches at $10 a book, that's only a little over 1,000 books per branch. Branches discard about 3,000 a year because of the reasons listed above by Anon 9:44. Also, books are being thrown out that could be repaired. Kathy Kaplan

  10. As to empty shelves, remember that they were configured for cassette tapes and VHS tapes. DVDs and CDs take up much less shelf space. So do eBooks and eAudiobooks!

    Items that are checked out don't take up shelf space. If the library is getting the "right" materials, people want them and check them out.

  11. Kathy Kaplan does not work for the library system. Her information is simply wrong. The $250,000 is ADDITIONAL funding. The materials budget is around 3.5 million dollars.

    And who is she to say what the people of Fairfax County "need" to read?

  12. Make no mistake. This is planned and directed. The same thing is happening in Mesa and Gilbert Arizona. The photo above looks just like the libraries here. Does the NOVA librarian think our memories are so short that we can't remember full book shelves or that no one notices?