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Friday, July 12, 2013

Librarians concerned about policy changes

The check-out desk at George Mason Regional Library.
Dozens of librarians packed the meeting room at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale July 10 during a Fairfax County Library Board meeting to express their concerns with proposed policy changes aimed at cutting costs that they say will impair services to the public.

The proposals would downgrade professional librarians by no longer requiring them to have master’s degree in library science (MLS) and would combine basic customer service with research help for library users.

The library board agreed to delay the start of a beta test of the “single-desk” model at the Reston and Burke Centre libraries until Oct. 1, but the library system will still begin preparations to proceed with the policy changes.

Following the board meeting, Library Director Edwin “Sam” Clay said the delay will give the Library Board time “to review the beta model more closely, as well as review the findings of an ad hoc committee tasked with reviewing the system from top to bottom.” 

The committee is comprised of Clay, board chair Willard Jasper (Lee District); at large-board member Charles Fegan, a resident of Annandale; and Jennifer McCullough, a representative of the Fairfax County Public Libraries Employees Association.

Fairfax County Libraries still needs to cut nearly $850,000 from its budget for fiscal year 2014, Clay noted. “Since several library board members stated that they expect the beta to move forward with minor adjustments, we will continue our preparation activities with regard to the overall strategic initiatives including the implementation of Comprise [a new financial system], the integration of the single-service desk, and the managing of vacancies. Cross training and communication efforts will continue in support of all these activities,” he said.

At the hearing, Christine Jones, the branch manager of the Centreville Regional Library, told the board she disagrees with the assumptions underlying the policy changes.

It’s not true that the library staff no longer receives complex reference questions, Jones said.  “Information services have certainly changed during the digital age, but they are in no way self-service,” she said. “Having worked in both the print and digital eras, I assure you that information professionals are as necessary today as we were in the print era.”

It’s also untrue that customers can now get answers to their business questions online, Jones said.  People don’t know where to look or how to use the resources. “They need our help navigating the wealth of accurate information and avoiding the larger collection of misinformation,” she said.

Nevertheless, “FCPL can, and must, become more efficient,” Jones said. And while she supports the proposal to make the MLS “a preferred, rather than mandatory, qualification for information positions,” that shouldn’t result in downgrading those positions. “Those employees deserve the same pay and promotional opportunities that their colleagues with MLSs earn.”

“I fear that FCPL’s services will decline under the proposed plan as current staff retire or resign, Jones said. “Candidates interested in careers as information professionals will apply to the many neighboring jurisdictions instead of Fairfax County. The proposed positions will attract people interested in jobs, rather than people committed to the mission of public libraries. We will get what we pay for.”

Nancy Bronez, a librarian at Thomas Jefferson Library in Falls Church, urged the board to retain librarians specializing in youth services and “make youth services a priority.” When there are 100,000 children’s books available, it takes a youth specialist to know which ones are the best, she said.

“None of us here is na├»ve enough to believe that library services should remain the same in the face of reduced budgets and changing use patterns. However, there are many parts of the current plan that are poorly thought out and destructive to both good service and creative service,” said Deborah Smith-Cohen, assistant branch manager of the Patrick Henry Library in Vienna. 

“Aspects of the plan are unfair to staff who will not be given increased compensation, and yet will be expected to perform more technically demanding work,” Smith-Cohen said. “Other aspects discount both legitimate professional credentials and specializations.”

According to Smith-Cohen, the worst part of the process has been “the inadequate communication with staff, the lack of an active role for staff in the development of solutions, and the dismissal of staff questions and objections over the past several months.”

“The staff who must make this transition work feel disrespected and marginalized,” she said. “Many of us are afraid, angry, and uncertain about our employment future and about the direction FCPL is taking.  “Without staff buy-in, no restructuring program can succeed.”


  1. The comment about use of online resources is true. I have been a library user for many years, but never took advantage of these resources. However, today, I went to the library for a particular book, which did not appear to still be part of the library's collection. The librarian showed me how to use these resources to find information on my topic, and I expect to make use of this in the future. The librarians have always been very helpful, including when my daughter had research papers and was having trouble finding material that was relevant.

  2. And this is during a period of time that police and teachers get raises but no raises for the FFx Co library staff for 3 years. Time to enhance the Rt. 7 corridor since we have so much money (not). As experienced librarians with MLS degrees leave the system, there's no incentive for new librarians to be hired. Dumbing down to the lowest common denominator even though the diversity in the county has increased.

  3. They plan to change the job titles from Librarian to Customer Service Specialist. Seriously. Talking about dumbing down!

  4. Please contact your elected officials and SPEAK UP for library funding! Until the public is as vocal about libraries as they are about schools, the library will bleed to death.

  5. Libraries are underfunded in Fairfax County while neighboring counties build cutting edge buildings with professional staffs to serve every age level. Why doesn't Fairfax County government value libraries? The return on investment statistics for public libraries are impressive.

  6. The Pew Center recent data on libraries funded by Gates shows that librarians are one of the two most trusted professions in America. The public also respects librarians. Pew data shows that the public wants libraries to take on bigger problems in their communities (small business, summer slide, workforce, etc.). Why in the world would somone hired to lead a library department decrease the training and leadership responsibilities for a profession so valued and valuable? If funding is falling at FCPL while it rises elsewhere--it is management that needs to be the focus for improved judgment. Isn't it obvioius that decisions that diminish library value are the problem, not the solution? Preserve and develop library services, their value and their future--preserve librarians!