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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fairfax County supervisors urged to block plans to decimate libraries

Thomas Jefferson Library in Falls Church.
Librarians, library supporters, and patrons are stepping up their efforts to educate Fairfax County supervisors and the public about the harmful implications of policy changes being implemented by Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) Director Sam Clay.

Library advocates say the changes would downgrade the professional staff, resulting in reduced services to the public.

More than 600 people have signed an online petition posted by the library “friends” groups. The petition says the policy changes “will result in drastic reductions in staff available to serve patrons in the branches, near elimination of programming geared towards children, and a workforce that lacks the advanced certifications and skills necessary to fulfill specialized requests.”

The petition calls for the Fairfax County library board to “postpone indefinitely” the FCPL “beta project” and re-evaluate its direction. The beta project is implementing these changes at the Reston and Burke Centre libraries.

Clay insists the changes are needed because the library budget has to be cut by $850,000 and libraries need to be updated in light of changes in how people use them and because so much information is available online. A “fact sheet” Clay sent to supervisors downplays the impact of the changes on library services for the public.

Outreach to supervisors 

During the past couple of weeks, library employees, including representatives of the Fairfax County Public Library Employees Association, have met with several Fairfax County supervisors to share their concerns. They are also reaching out to citizen association organizations and homeschooling parents, who rely heavily on libraries, and are passing out postcards at community meetings that individuals can send to their supervisors.

A major concern of library employees and supporters is that Clay didn’t seek their input before proceeding with the changes. Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova and several of the other supervisors indicated that the policies should be put on hold until the library administration has a chance to hear from employees and the public.

At a meeting with library employees, Supervisor John Foust (Dranesville) said he’s already gotten a lot of feedback from the public and said he didn’t agree with the idea that libraries are no longer essential and should be subject to constant budget cutting. Not all of the supervisors are aligned with the employees, however. At another meeting, Supervisor Pat Herrity (Springfield) wasn’t that concerned about the policy changes and indicated they should be given a chance.

An Aug. 12 written statement from Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (Hunter Mill) says: “I fully support public libraries as an essential service . . . While the county has struggled in recent budgets with service reductions, I believe we have already gone too far. Please know that I am not in favor of additional limits to library services.” She noted that she has not yet received anything from FCPL and is scheduled to meet with Clay in September.

A library employee group has not met with Mason Supervisor Penny Gross yet. Elizabeth Clements, a member of the library board representing Mason, said she has talked to Gross about the proposed changes and says, “she is very interested and concerned. Penny Gross has always been a great supporter of libraries.” 

Clements predicts a lively discussion at the next board meeting on Sept. 11. “Things are in limbo. There’s great controversy,” she says. “We love our libraries. We want them to remain the finest libraries in Virginia. Some view libraries as amenities. We feel they’re a necessity in our communities.”

Alternatives proposed

Some of the branch managers have scheduled a meet a meeting with Clay for Aug. 15 to present alternative proposals for addressing the need to cut the library budget without overly diminishing the quality of libraries.

The branch managers’ recommendations call for delaying the new job classifications, retaining librarians that specialize in children’s and youth services, and soliciting feedback from staff. They don’t oppose the proposal for a single-service deskcombining information and circulation functionsbut would like to see it phased in over several years. And if the budget needs to be cut, they would prefer closing one or two libraries, rather than diminishing service and quality across the board.

In addition, some employees have suggested that it isn’t appropriate for Clay to make such far-reaching changes when he has already made plans to retire in a couple of years.

Many employees also feel the single-service desk concept could be appropriate for smaller libraries but are less confident that it would good for regional libraries, said Jennifer McCullough, president of the Fairfax County Public Library Employees Association and a youth services information assistant at Dolley Madison Library in McLean.

No more librarians

The policy changes go a lot farther than that. however, by proposing a whole new job classification system, McCullough explained, and that is what many librarians are upset about.

The new job classifications decrease educational requirements and pay grades. Some jobs that now require a master’s degree in library science, for example, would only need a bachelor’s degree, and those that require a bachelor’s degree would be downgraded to an associate degree.

Instead of specializing in information or circulation, staff would be expected to take care of both functions, and new positions would be created under the category “library customer service specialists.”

According to McCullough, it doesn’t make sense to downgrade the qualifications of people who are supposed to be providing services to the community. These people will no longer be “librarians.”

The new system also eliminates the positions described as children, youth, or adult service specialists. Instead, there will be one person in charge of outreach who will be expected to develop all of a library’s programs for infants through seniors.

“Staff feels that is a great loss to the community,” McCullough says. “People trained for youth services and have expertise in that area should specialize in that and shouldn’t be given responsibility for adult services.”

The new job classifications took effect in May, and library employees are unhappy that they weren’t consulted on any of those changes, she says. Employees are also unhappy about the requirement that all staff be full time, that fewer staff mean programs might be cancelled if an employee has an emergency, and that it will be harder to advance in one’s career.

The financial impact on current employees is unclear. Clay told employees they would be able to stay in their current jobs until they retire or leave the system, McCullough says, but senior administrators also told staff that everyone would eventually be moved into the new job classifications. That could mean an improvement for some staff but most employees would be downgraded—by as much as three pay categories for some positions.

If the budget needs to be cut, employees don’t understand why all the cuts are happening in the branches, she adds, while new positions are being created in library administration.


  1. First they came for the Children's Librarians, but since I didn't have children, I didn't say anything. Who will be next?
    Fran Millhouser

  2. I keep hearing than an MLS would be a preferred job qualification but it is not mentioned in a single one of the new job descriptions. A library without librarians is not a library - it is a staff of Wal-Mart greeters pointing you in the direction you need to go for "self-service." "Check out your books at that self-service station;""Pay your fines at that self-service station;" "That service is DIY online now;" etc... This is the level of service coming to a library near you. But if that is what taxpayers want...

  3. Programming is not the definition of children's services. TV provides children's programming.
    Library services for children link a child and often his parent, with appropriate information, in all formats, for children of various ages, reading and interest levels, in subjects and literature. Such knowledge is not gained in quick training sessions.
    Ilze Long

  4. During the meeting with the branch managers Aug. 15, Library Director Sam Clay listened politely as they expressed concerns with his plan to change the job classifications and described their alternative proposal for cutting the library budget.

    The branch managers had been previously told that the changes are needed for budgetary reasons, so they were surprised when Clay said that’s not the issue. While saving money is important, Clay said his main justification is to make the libraries more relevant and better serve customers’ needs—and that the policy changes would be proposed regardless of budgetary issues.

    The branch managers felt that Clay might agree to a few minor changes they proposed but isn’t likely to go beyond that.

  5. Mr. Clay has never actually worked IN a public library. He teaches library science to library school students, yet has not advocated for libraries or librarians in Fairfax County (or anywhere else). He is a disgrace to the profession and a detriment to the best interests of county residents. Mr. Clay should be removed from all Virginia Library Association positions. Mr. Clay should resign, retire early or be asked to leave his position with Fairfax County. His salary would save the county more than $100,000. I am a librarian and I cannot sign my real name for fear of retribution. In addition, the Library Board should be replace by all new members. Where are they in all of this? Doing Mr. Clay's bidding without question or concern.

    1. Actually, canning him would save the county about $180,000. I suppose we could throw out $180,000 worth of books to keep things in balance.

  6. I am sorry, but I do not see that getting rid of librarians would make libraries more relevant and better serve customer's needs. As an MLIS-degreed, FCPL librarian, I have spend countless hours sharpening my skills so that I am able to deal with the changes brought on by technology.

    An untrained clerk with two years of college and two years of retail experience does not bring such skills to the table. Excellent customer service will become a thing of the past at FCPL, if this plan is enacted. The citizens of Fairfax County deserve better from their library system.

  7. What are the parameters that the Beta plan will be judged by? If its an utter failure, will they come up with another plan? Why do the schools have a surplus, but the libraries have to keep cutting the budget to the bone? And why were so many books thrown away without the Friends of the Library being allowed to browse them for potenial sales? Too many questions and no good answers for anything to go forward at this point.

  8. What a tragedy! How disappointing that the library director has failed to be a champion for the need for qualified librarians. Replacing them with staff without the necessary education is so short sighted. ...and in such an underhanded way as to not seek their input. Being a library branch manager is a difficult job, but can you image how much more difficult it is for someone without a librarian's education? Has Library Director Sam Clay thrown his hands up in the air? Does he lack the necessary creative, administrative vision to handle this situation? Perhaps it is time for him to retire.

    Think about it - what if we said "Hospitals don't need doctors with MDs, an RN degree will do!" Or, "let's build bridges, but use construction workers, not trained engineers." It's the same principle. Sam Clay has failed to convince his Board and other decision makers that trained librarians are skilled and necessary to providing quality library services.

  9. I have to wonder about Sam Clay and his revamped plan. Public Libraries have traditionally been the red-headed stepchild of the public sector - often taking bigger budget cuts than their departmental counterparts (such as the police department) during hard economic times. Public libraries are typically female dominated organizations, too. Oddly enough dominated by male leaders, at least traditionally. I have to wonder if Sam Clay, an older white male, holds an old-school, authoritarian management style and feels like he knows better than everyone, especially his female staff. Or, if he is simply in survival mode, trying to accommodate higher level decision makers....but appearing to run around like a chicken with his head cut off in the process.

    Many other professions recognize that as their organizations grow and change, their professionals with supervisory responsibilities have to develop higher level management skills.

    Some of these same professions even recognize that holding the requisite degree to enter the profession is still necessary to hold many of their management positions, which also require additional management training. Heck, some of these even have succession plans and identify individuals to mentor and train - and they make the training opportunities available.

    I am curious, what has the library director done to ensure he has developed his staff and that his staff have had ample opportunities to receive this training.

    Has he considered giving the branch managers and librarians more responsibility in order to save money? Through attrition, he could have them manage 2 or more branches, thereby reducing the need to have as many higher paid librarians, but still retain the educational integrity in the position's qualifications.

    There are other options, here, rather than flushing professional positions - and quality public library service - down the toilet!