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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Library system needs to evolve, consultants report

A full house at George Mason Regional Library.
A community engagement study conducted for the Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees found widespread public support for the libraries but called for a strategic planning process to figure out how the library system can continue to provide core services while evolving to meet changing community needs.

Consultants Marc Futterman, president of CivicTechnologies, and Nancy Davis, a partner with the Ivy Group, presented their report to the trustees Sept. 7.

According to the results of a telephone survey of 1,009 Fairfax County residents conducted in May and June, 82 percent of library users said they are extremely satisfied with the Fairfax County Public Library system overall, Davis said.

However, only 63 percent said FCPL does all it can do to offer services and resources that residents need, and just 78 percent report the library provides good value for the tax dollars invested.

Strong public support

“These difference reveal that while users are mostly satisfied with what they’re getting from the library, they believe that the library can do significantly better and deliver significantly more value,” the report states.

“Library users” (those who used the library at least three times in the past 12 months) were most satisfied with library staff courtesy, customer service, and self-service checkout. They were least satisfied with wi-fi, the number of computers, and the wait time for reserved items, Davis told the trustees.

When asked about potential new service offerings, respondents expressed the greatest interest in off-site book drop and pick-up, more self-service options, laptops or tablets available on loan, and live chat with a staff member.

Twenty-eight percent of non-users said the main reason they don’t use the library is because they get the information they need from the internet, and 20 percent said they don’t have time to use the library.

When asked which market segments are most important, the public ranked children as number one, followed by people with special needs and older people. Business owners and job seekers were ranked least important.

Survey respondents said the services and resources they want more of include children’s programs, books and materials, reference materials and services, adult literacy programs, and services for English language learners. Services the public ranked as least important include DVDs and CDs and help for people applying for government services such as Social Security and unemployment benefits.

Survey respondents from multilingual households were more interested in seeing expanded services like homework help, computer technology assistance, English language instruction, and quiet study spaces.

In addition to the telephone survey, the consultants invited the public to take an online survey. Although the results are not statistically reliable – the vast majority were library users – that survey also showed “significant support” for FCPL, Davis said. The fact that there were more than 18,000 responses “demonstrates very, very high level of public interest and public engagement with the library.”

There were also many comments from the public about how the library should be more of a community hub, fears about the possibility of funding cuts, concerns about the “floating collection” (meaning books can now be dropped off at a different branch), the need to respond to cultural diversity within the community, and the need to retain books as FCPL considers the balance between books and technology.

Emerging trends

Futterman described some of the emerging trends documented in the study:
  • The organizational health of the library, the library board, and the friends groups all need to improve.
  • FCPL is torn between fulfilling “a traditional service model” and an “evolving service model.”
The traditional model, strongly supported by library advocates, focuses on core services such as books; discovery by browsing the shelves; computers and materials for research; quiet spaces for learning; and rooms for meeting. The evolving service model is more about “quick adaptation to changing community needs”; uses “a demand-based, customer-centric approach”; embraces changing technology; delivers services outside the building; and is designed for collaborate experiences.
  • The consultants also conducted a survey of library staff and trustees, and the results show those groups are “out of sync” with the community on library priorities. “The mindset we find among staff is they are more defensive and individualistic than inclusive and collaborative,” Futterman said.
  • The public face of the library – including its brand, virtual services, marketing, and social media – needs significant investment.

“FCPL needs a big, encompassing vision that can gather everything within it and get all of the stakeholders on the same page,” the report states. This requires leadership and a strategic planning process with all parties involved in making equitable trade-offs.

According to Futterman, this effort needs to be carried out “in the context of a changing world,” along with “very challenging local conditions.'” These challenges include a competitive market in which the public is increasingly turning to Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia for resources and choosing places like Starbucks to read and study.

Among the consultants’ recommendations:
  • The top priority for library services should be children from birth to age 12.
  • A combined service model should be considered that incorporates existing traditional services with a demand-based model that embraces innovation and new technology.
  • The library’s policy on the floating collection approach could be fine-tuned but a wholesale revision is not warranted.
  • FCPL should invest significant resources in changing the mindset of staff to embrace change and “foster an organizational culture that values inclusivity and collaboration.”
  • The library board should focus on strategy and policy, not operations, and should be a stronger advocate for funding. An independent study of library board governance should be undertaken immediately.


  1. Though the survey report makes somes good points and includes some useful data, it is riddled with unsubstantiated statements and opinions smearing members of the library board who are FCPL retirees, Friends groups who have advocated for FCPL, branch managers and staff who are deemed not "loyal" to FCPL , advocates in general and more. Given that it was grassroots library advocates who helped demand an full scale independent library community survey it is sad to see the report used to promote the same old grudges and falsehoods.

    Branch managers and staff who advocate for full funding for our libraries are not "loyal" to FCPL ? Friends groups who do such advocacy "tarnish" other Friends groups ? The presence of retirees on the Library Board is not "ethical" ? They would rather have Trustees who know nothing about FCPL and are merely appointed as political favors to donors ?

    Also troubling is the suggestion that the Friends should be required to turn over funds to the Foundation. The Foundation Director works for the County and reports to the Library Director. So those funds would be controlled by the same County which has cut and cut library budgets - rather than by an independent non profit like the Friends.

  2. Defining “Library users” as "those who used the library at least three times in the past 12 months" misses the real impact libraries have on a community. Even if you haven't been in a library for the last 12 years you benefit from it many times every day as a result of the information, fascination and inspiration so many in your neighborhood have received over the years from this source we call simply: the library.

  3. "Evolving Service Model" = Privatization & Less-Educated Librarians