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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Supervisors call for extensive public outreach before library changes proceed

A display on libraries in the lobby of the Fairfax County Government Center.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a “board matter” Sept. 10 directing the county executive to request the Library Board put proposed changes on hold until they “conduct an extensive outreach program to inform and educate the public and library employees.”

Those changes would reduce the quality of service to the public, reduce the professional qualifications required for library employees, eliminate specialized staff for children’s programming, and more. The changes have angered librarians and library supporters, who have mobilized public support, reached out to the media, and inundated library board members and supervisors with emails.

Much of that anger has been directed at Fairfax County Public Library Director Sam Clay, who has begun implementing these changes in a “beta” test at the Burke Center and Reston libraries without seeking input from staff or the public. Even more damaging to FCPL has been the recent publicity about dumpsters full of library books.

All this should make for an interesting Library Board meeting this evening at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale. The board was originally scheduled to vote on the policy changes Sept. 11, but the Board of Supervisors measure, introduced by John Foust (Dranesville), directs the Library Board to “not implement any change that would have a material impact on library users and/or library employees until the public outreach process is completed.”

It also calls for the FCPL change proposals to “be modified, as deemed appropriate by the Library Board, to incorporate the input received during the public outreach process.”

At the request of Lynda Smyth (Providence), the supervisors agreed to amend the board matter to state that the board will examine its book discard policy. “I spent a lot of quality time in dumpsters recently,” said Smyth, referring to her discovery of library books that have been thrown out, including “a lot of books that are still in very good condition.”

She said the discard policy needs to be reviewed to ensure that books libraries no longer want on their shelves be given to library friends groups for their used books sales.

Six other supervisors and Chair Sharon Bulova signed on to the measure. The only two supervisors who declined do so are Pat Herrity (Springfield) and Michael Frey (Sully).

Clay and Library Board Vice Chair Charles Fegan (at large) were at the meeting during the library discussion, but only Fegan spoke, telling the supervisors the Library Board is “cognizant of the concerns of the board, patrons, community, and staff.”

Fegan said the Library Board plans at its Sept. 11 meeting to put “the entire matter of the changes on hold” and will propose scheduling a “staff day”—to include Clay and Deputy County Executive David Molchany—where “we hope to get freewheeling input from all of the staff.”

Acknowledging that “there was not enough input from the other stakeholders,” Fegan said, “the best thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging.”

He also said he will recommend that the Library Board establish an ad hoc committee, with Smyth as a member, to  review policies on discarding books. The committee will “come back with a recommendation to the library board for the future disposition of any asset,” he said. “We are dealing with taxpayer money. We have to be cognizant of that fact.”

Penny Gross (Mason) requested FCPL submit a written report on how it plans to modify the proposals for change and suggested the Library Board report back to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 19 on “what your recommendations are going forward.”  

Herrity said he opposed the motion because, while community engagement is important, “we are setting a dangerous precedent” by asking staff to come up with creative ideas and then stepping in to prevent them from taking effect. “We are reacting to a whole swirl of misinformation,” he said. “If we delay the pilot, we’re not going to know the real results in time to make any adjustments this fiscal year.”

Herrity defended Clay for trying to move the libraries into the technology age, noting “that is the right approach.”

Jeff McKay (Lee) said he agreed with Herrity on some points but also supported the board matter. “You can have both—test things and have innovative ideas—but we have to make sure citizens are on board or at least understand them,” he said. “The library board should be making the decisions; we shouldn’t be micromanaging this.”

Bulova said she supports the measure because “there’s a tremendous amount of misunderstanding, misinformation, and fear. . . . The community needs to understand what the changes are all about.”

“I don’t think we’re setting a bad precedent or micromanaging,” said John Cook (Braddock). “We’re providing oversight, which is our job. Whenever you do a large change, outreach is an important part of it.”

Bulova applauded Clay “for looking at other ways to organize libraries.” She said change needs to happen,” and the pilot is going forward but “we have to make sure we’re not unduly alarming the community.”

This is not just a beta test, said Foust. The changes are already being implemented. “It’s not inappropriate for us to say we need public input on this before we go down this road.”

Catherine Hudgins (Hunter Mill) said the conversation about libraries needs to be part of a broader conversation with the community about “what role libraries play in the community and how we coordinate the multitude of services we provide.”


  1. Thanks for ALWAYS provinding the most thorough, accurate and compassionate reporting on this whole library mess. It is such a shame that we must struggle so hard for simple ideas like still having actual librarians in our libraries, retaining library staff dedicated to serving our kids , including our library users in the planning process, and not throwing perfectly good books in a dumpster. Clearly our libraries are in desperate need of new leadership with a new vision which respects the library profession and values library workers and the people they serve.

  2. Forgive me if I'm missing something here, BUT, if the Board of Supervisors consistently reduces funding for the library system as it has over the past several years, why is anyone surprised that Sam Clay has said, in effect, "OKAY, this is what your money will buy." I think much of the angst is misdirected and should be leveled at the BOS not Clay.

    1. I agree with comment above, there is so much more to this story than what we're hearing. Apparently the funds have been reduced over and over again. The Board of Supervisors needs to say that and take responsibility. The state has reduced general funds too. Let's have just a little transparency in government for a change.