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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Lots of outrage expressed at community meeting on the library system

Supervisor Linda Smyth with two of the library books she found in a dumpster.

People who came to a forum on libraries convened by Providence Supervisor Linda Smyth Oct. 10 raised serious concerns—about Fairfax County Public Libraries’ policy for trashing many thousands of books, cuts to the library budget, attempts to downgrade professional librarians, and much more.

Smyth held up two large reference books she rescued from a dumpster—an atlas of Western art and a classic text on gardening—that were in good condition. She also brought to the meeting 30 perfectly usable books she found in a dumpster at the FCPL Technical Operation Center that she said would fetch a total of 6 cents from a recycling company.

“That’s an enormous waste,” Smyth said. “Taxpayer dollars paid for those books.” FCPL could have gotten a lot more for the books if they had been sold as is, and not for pulp. Lots of the books in the dumpster were children’s books. “That was a heart breaker,” she said.

A member of a library friends group said 333,000 books were trashed in the past year or so. Excluding some in bad condition, those books could have generated $100,000, he said.

“As a taxpayer, I’m appalled that books are thrown into the garbage,” said Barbara Toth, one of about 100 community members and library employees who came to the meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.

A few of the many thousands of  library books that had been thrown in the trash.
Other people at the meeting complained that a lot of important books are missing from Fairfax County libraries. One person said he had to go to libraries in Arlington or Prince William County to get what he needed. Someone else asked why the library shelves are so empty.

The Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library is down about 56,000 books, noted community activist Kathy Kaplan.  Kathryn Young, a librarian at the Wilson Library in Bailey’s Crossroads, which recently closed for renovations, said when that library reopens, the collection will be reduced from 75,000 to 50,000 books to make space for more meeting rooms.

FCPL Libraries Director Sam Clay attempted to downplay the book dumping problem, saying, “this is all driven by budgets.” 

Clay presented an overview of what’s ahead for the libraries, telling the audience that there will be more e-books, libraries are going to be more reliant on private funding, and libraries will become “more of a community catalyst in pulling groups together.”

Clay said implementation of “the strategic plan is totally on hold. There clearly was not enough community input.” And he said the “beta plan,” which was supposed to test the new policies at two libraries is “totally on hold.”

That plan was suspended by the Fairfax County Library Board at the request of the Board of Supervisors following an outpouring of complaints from library employees, library friends groups, and the public.

Clay cited some of the highlights from that plan: The reallocation of work through a new library employee classification system, a new job category for “library customer service,” a single-service desk combining staff who can help customers with reference information and procedural issues, new procedures for “floating” the collection among libraries, and elimination of the requirement for a master’s degree in library science.

According to Clay, several themes emerged from the comments: People want to retain professionally trained librarians. Print books are of value. Online databases are needed but people still want reference materials. The problems with the disposal and floating of books “need to be fixed.” Children’s programs are important and should be led by professionals.

When the BoS passed a resolution on the library system last month, it directed the Library Board to submit a report by Nov. 19. That will be an interim report, Smyth clarified. “We don’t expect a grand replacement plan by Nov. 19. It’s a status report.”

Clay claimed that the changes he is seeking were recommended in a strategic plan by a consultant on the future of the library system.

Many of the librarians at the meeting, however, disagreed. One librarian from the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library said the strategic plan doesn’t say anything about downgrading professional qualifications for librarians. “The beta plan was pushed down our throats. Librarians are insulted. It’s all about cost cutting,” she said.

Clay also said the results of an online survey support the changes. But when asked how many people responded to the survey, he couldn’t say. And when someone asked how many people in the room filled out the survey, only one person raised her hand.

Jan Ker Tener, a former head of the Fairfax Library Foundation, urged the audience to focus on fighting budget cuts to the library system, noting libraries are one of the few institutions in the county that serve everyone of all backgrounds and all ages.

Smith noted that the 2008 “doomsday budget” hit libraries harder than other county programs, so new cutbacks will be especially difficult.

There were lots of concerns about FCPL’s fairly recent policy on “floating the collection.” In the past, books returned to a different library were sent back to the home library. Now, they stay at the branch where they are dropped off.

One librarian said a library’s books should serve its community, and the policy on floating hinders that goal. Under the floating policy, she said, when a Vietnamese book from the Wilson Library in Bailey’s Crossroads gets returned to the Kings’s Park Library, for example, it might not be checked out and will eventually get tossed.

Many people urged FCPL to retain professional librarians. Young children, the first generation growing up with digital resources, need professional guidance, said a library patron. “Kids know Wikipedia and nothing else. There is so much data out there and so little of knowledge of how to turn it into information. Now is not the time to cut back.”

Without professional librarians, “you lose the expertise of how to build a collection,” she said. “A collection is like a garden. It has to be carefully cultivated.”

Charles Keener of the Tysons-Pimmit Library said it’s not only librarians with masters’ in library science degrees who are being downgraded; it’s the entire employment structure. Under Clay’s plan, the front-line staff would only need two years of college, and would not be as qualified to determine which books to save or discard.

Young said changing a librarian’s title to “customer service specialist” translates to a $10,000 salary differential in terms of national job title classifications. FCPL isn’t proposing that current employees get a pay cut. But Young said the title change is a sign of “disrespect” and would discourage librarians from other parts of the country from wanting to apply for jobs here.

Following the meeting, Smyth said she has asked the county executive to get rid of the term “customer service” to describe jobs throughout all county departments. “The retail model doesn’t  work for government. We are engaged in public service, which should have higher standards than what we see in retail,” she said.

The Oct.11 meeting was part of a series of community outreach meetings requested by the BoS and library board in response to public concerns about the effort to restructure the library system. The only upcoming meetings close to Annandale will be Saturday, Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m., at Kings Parks Library, 9000 Burke Lake Road, Burke, and Nov. 18, 7 p.m, at George Mason Regional Library, 7001 Little River Turnpike, Annandale.

Other community meetings are scheduled for Oct. 16, 7 p.m., at the Lorton Library; Oct. 21, 7 p.m., at the Great Falls Library; Oct. 26, 2:30 p.m., at John Marshall Library in Alexandria; Oct. 30, 7 p.m., at Hunter Woods Elementary School in Reston; and Nov. 6, 7 p.m., at Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean.


  1. Many thanks to Supervisor Smyth for her tireless and visionary leadership concerniong the wellbeing and future direction of Fairfax county Public Libraries. Supervisor Smyth is truly the sort of dedicated public servant we all wish was far less uncommon. Thank you and Bless you Linda Smyth !!!

  2. Even though Supervisor Smyth has been a fighter at this point what happened to her in 2008 when the doomsday budget was enacted on the libraries? Obviously Clay is just a yes man and will do whatever the Board of Supervisors tell him do or whatever a consultant tells him to do to cut money. I hold the Board of Supervisors at fault for terrible management. I don't want to pay a consultant $100,000 (that's generally what they are paid) to tell the library administration how to cut the budget. Something is terribly wrong here. One thing is for sure the Board of Supervisors is not listening to their constituents about libraries or anything else.

  3. Thanks for the report on the 1st library public meeting. I am even more outraged than before.

    One question I have, regarding the non return of books to their original home branch is what’s to happen to online requests for books from other branches. THAT specific feature I believe has made the library system viable for the 21st Century, FCPL’s best customer service (and I don’t mean retail as referenced below) feature! When I moved back to NoVa in 2004, I was thrilled that I can go online, find any book in the system, and request it be waiting for me at George Mason (my preferred/closest branch). I just LOVE it and have enjoyed so many more books at the library than I would have!

    I look up any book I’ve heard of at the FCPL online site FIRST. I put in a request for new book and love that I get a notice when it’s in, even if I’m 83rd in line and get it months later. FCPL and George Mason have been my first point of call, my first source. So, here’s the question:

    If FCPL will no longer deadhead books back to their home branch, what happens to moving requested books amongst branches for readers requesting them? That would be a severe drop in “customer service” of the library.

  4. I do not know why they are changing the library from a library to a meeting room. There are so many people who would take those books. If they really wanted to get rid of them, they could have at least donated or sold them.

  5. The community meeting schedule has been updated. There is a community meeting this coming Saturday, Oct. 19, at 1:30 pm at the Kings Park Library. There will also be a community meeting on Monday, November 18th, at 7 pm at George Mason Regional Library. Members of the public are also welcome to sign up for one of the ten slots to speak at the Library Board of Trustees meeting, on Wednesday, Nov. 13th at George Mason Regional Library. The library website ( has a link to a current list of all community meetings.

  6. There are too many people using the library for meetings when they can meet somewhere else. I see cub scout and boy scout troops all the time in libraries. The schools are still available for them.