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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Library staff, supporters battling plan to overhaul library system

George Mason Regional Library.
With a crucial library board meeting approaching, library employees and “friends” groups are mobilizing support from officials, community groups, and patrons to urge the board to roll back plans to restructure the library system and downgrade the professional qualifications of employees.

The Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees will consider major policy changes Sept. 11 at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale. The meeting, open to the public, starts at 7 p.m.

Among the key changes: the elimination of specialized staff dedicated to serving children and other age groups, the elimination of a requirement for a master’s degree in library science, the elimination of dedicated reference/information desks and instead having “single service” stations.

So far, an online petition opposing the changes has over 1,300 signatures. Browsing  through the hundreds of comments by petition signers shows how angry and devastated many librarians feel about the changes.

Library Director Sam Clay has been belatedly reaching out to gain support for his plans to overhaul the library system, following criticism from several library board members, friends groups, staff, and members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that he failed to seek input from employees and the public.

Library supporters, however, charge that Clay is spreading inaccurate and misleading information about the plan and downplaying the implications for reduced service to the public. Clay has been giving the impression that the “beta test” now under way in the Reston and Burke libraries is just a pilot test of the changes, when in fact it would implement a total restructuring that would be difficult to reverse.

Furthermore, some of the library employees who have been publicizing the changes in the library system report that they’ve been intimidated and threatened by Clay.

Librarians gain allies

The Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations created an ad hoc committee last week to look into the library situation. According to an email from federation President Rob Jackson, the committee has not taken a position on the substance of the proposed changes “but is concerned the county has not engaged the public sufficiently.”

The committee, to be chaired by Kathy Kaplan from the Reston Citizens Association, has been charged with investigating “the financial issues, the effects on library users, and the changing uses of our libraries” and will submit recommendations at the Sept. 26 meeting of the federation board.

The union representing county employees, SEIU Virginia 512, approved a statement urging the library board to “vote no on the proposed changes to the Fairfax County Library system and instead, allow community members and library employees to work with management to develop new cost-saving ideas for our library system.”

Union members don’t want the current plan postponed or tweaked, said a participant at the meeting. They want it scrapped and a new plan developed with input from all library stakeholders, including patrons, parents, staff, volunteers, and library friends groups.

Supervisors weigh in

Responses from members of the Fairfax County Supervisors (BOS) has been mixed. Cathy Hudgins (Hunter Mill) said she is “not in favor of additional limits to library services.” Several other supervisors offered more nuanced reactions.

“We need to see the results of the [beta] test before jumping to conclusions,” said Penny Gross (Mason). She said she told Clay he needs to “do a better job of communicating to the staff and public and he took my suggestion positively.”

John Foust (Dranesville) said: “Given our budget challenges, all county agencies are expected to find more efficient and better ways to provide services. I believe the recent proposal made by the library administration is  intended to be consistent with that effort.”

“I also believe that there has not been an adequate job of communicating with library personnel and the community regarding what is being proposed and getting their input,” Foust said.

Pat Herrity (Springfield) wrote an op-ed in the Burke Connection countering what he called “a swirl of misinformation” about the library pilot program. “The county is not suddenly making overnight changes to the way our libraries operate. Instead, we are going to run a pilot program at the Burke Centre and Reston regional libraries to see if the recommendations work,” he said.

In an earlier interview with the Annandale Blog, Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova said Clay needed to do more outreach with the pubic and employees, expressed reservations about downgrading staff, but said the libraries do need to modernize and reallocate staff.

There is concern among opponents of the library changes that the supervisors don’t thoroughly understand what’s going on—and what’s at stake.

The so-called “beta test” is not really an experiment; it’s a permanent change that could later be tweaked but not terminated, they insist. Also, the new “customer service” non-librarian positions were created and put into place before the beta test began. It should also be noted that most library employees do not oppose the idea of a “single desk” combining customer service and information services.

Library supporters also argue that the Q&A on the changes published on the library system website intentionally omits some of the most controversial aspects of the changes. It fails to mention the plan to divide staff into three functions: backroom only, service desk only, and program only. It also fails to discuss the downgrading of professional qualifications and neglects to explain that there won’t be librarians whose sole responsibility is to provide children’s services.


  1. Excellent article. You are doing an outstanding job of reporting on this important ongoing story . THANK YOU !!!

  2. And the Beta testing is only being done at libraries with wealthier patrons. It might not work well at libraries which are over utilized. I think this was done deliberately. What works for Reston and Burke Centre (near Fairfax Station) may not work in places like Annandale with our diverse population that relies heavily on library services.

  3. Yes, I second 12:15 poster. Thank you Ellie for recognizing the importance of this issue. I would not know ANY of this information had it not been for your blog.

  4. The Reston Citizens Association Board of Directors approved a resolution by a 10-1 vote Aug. 26 calling for the beta project to be cancelled, a new library strategic plan to be developed “with full participation of all library stakeholders,” and library funding to be restored. They also endorsed the position that “libraries should be considered a core responsibility of the county.”

    According to a majority of the board members, the beta project is “merely an extension of the substantial decreases in the FCPL’s budget share of the county’s budget over the last six years.” They found the county’s decision to destroy large numbers of books paid for by county taxpayers “especially objectionable.”

  5. As a Burke Centre Library user, I do not think the beta test is working very well there either. The single desk configuration means that anyone asking a question can easily tie up the desk for other patrons who might need to pay fines, apply for a library card or ask simpler questions.
    I don't think that you have to have an MLS degree to be a really experienced and capable library user or guide. But the fact is that over the past nine months, I've had several questions be unanswerable by the staff on hand. They are wonderful, polite, helpful people. But if their experience doesn't extend to standard literature reference works, it's hard for them to answer questions that would utilize those references. (I don't think that it's unreasonable to expect that a librarian should be able to point me to the reference book that lists children's books by topic or time period. That seems a library competency that shouldn't be replaced with an appeal to the internet.)

  6. An example of how poorly thought out the beta project is, is the way it will be implemented at Reston Regional. The Reston Information Desk, currently tightly configured and barely adequate for two reference librarians, will become the One Desk Center supporting ALL services: checkouts; renewals; holds and interlibrary loan requests; information requests; in-depth research questions; recommending books; homework help; library card registrations; telephone inquiries, service, and information requests; computer sign-ups; computer assistance; help with online research; database instruction; e-book assistance and device instruction; computer troubleshooting, patron printing and photocopying; program registration; billing and payments issues; booking meeting rooms; and much more.

    However, the plan is to simply crowd everything into a footprint that is already too small and inefficiently designed for its current function. FCPL is doing this project "on the cheap," unwilling to even make the facility improvements needed to insure that the One Desk will big enough and specifically designed so staff can provide all the services needed to meet patron demands.

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why Reston was selected as a beta site if there is no intent to give it the facility support it needs to successfully provide for the community's needs. The county needs to at least pony up for a new, state-of the art One Desk full-service center, one with line-of sight and easy access into the children's area, so the staff can successfully handle all the tasks it must deal with in this model. This seems like a truly half-*ssed effort to save money, not improve library service. If it's going to be done, at least do it right from the beginning! It will be a shame if an excellent library is allowed to be destroyed because of the hubris of a management team that is determined to save face at all costs.

  7. The last paragraph of this article contains the main issues that staff members are having with the proposed changes. Thank you so much!

  8. It is indeed a sad day when the public library system is being downgraded at the expense of the users. The loss of MLS employees and those who specialize in assisting children shows a lack of vision on the part of system leaders. Streamlining work, finding ways to save money, and shifting employee emphasis can be done in a more professional manner. Is Mr. Clay only concerned only with the bottom line - or providing modern answers to much needed community service?

  9. ONE DESK for everything? That's insane. Put your volunteers and nonMLS people at the renewal and fine desk. Put your knowledgeable MLS librarian or *possibly a retired or other MLS volunteer* at the information desk. What are they thinking?