Community outrage over having weeded a quarter of a million books into dumpsters isn’t the kind of public relations brouhaha that any library relishes dealing with. That scandal, though, may be the least of the problems for the Fairfax County Public Library, VA, (FCPL) where the library’s Board of Trustees has pressed pause on implementing a strategic plan that was supposed to help guide the library forward.
FCPL made headlines earlier this month when Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth brought to light dumpsters full of books discarded by the FCPL, photographing them and bringing their contents to the attention of the rest of the Board of Supervisors. Of course, weeding is a process that every library goes through, as FCPL Director Sam Clay pointed out. Many community members and library patrons, though, complained that the resulting culls should go to Friends of the Library groups who can resell them or distribute them to schools and other organizations.
FCPL’s weeding process turned controversial last fall, as the library moved to a floating collection system. FCPL floated the collection to improve the efficiency of collection management, saving money for the FCPL, which has been suffering from budget cuts since 2009. From October 2012 to May 2013, Friends of the Libraries groups received no books from FCPL as the library discarded hundreds of thousands of books. Elizabeth Rhodes, collections coordinator for FCPL, said the halt in offering discarded books to Friends groups was only ever meant to be temporary, but that as FCPL’s move to a floating collection necessitated a move to central processing of discards, FCPL didn’t yet have a mechanism to get materials to Friends groups.
That meant books in dumpsters, because while FCPL is able to donate discarded titles to Friends groups, that’s the only place they’re allowed to give away books they can’t use anymore. County regulations state that the board of supervisors must approve any organization—like a homeless shelter or prison library—that gets property from the library. Otherwise, the books are required to be recycled once they have been processed out of the system.
Mary Vavrina, vice president of The Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, said that while her group has started seeing books from the library again, the quantity of discards sent to her Friends group —and their quality—has notably diminished. Meanwhile, the dumpsters full of books photographed by County Supervisor Linda Smyth in late August show that books that Friends groups are convinced they could put to better use are still winding up in dumpsters.
Beyond the book sale
The controversy has served to kick-start a wider-ranging conversation in Fairfax County about the future of its libraries. That conversation centers on what’s known as the Beta Project, a slate of changes to library staffing and operation that was scheduled to begin a test run in two FCPL libraries—busy Reston Regional and smaller, newly built Burke Center—this September. The most controversial item in the Beta Project would see librarian and library assistant positions scrapped in favor of a customer-service specialist position, which would not require applicants to have an MLS, MLIS, or even a bachelor’s degree.
The minimum requirement for a job as a customer service specialist is an associate’s degree and at least two years of experience in retail customer service, relaxed educational requirements that have some worried. Speaking before the library Board of Trustees in June, Great Falls Library branch manager Daniela Dixon expressed some of those concerns. “The argument is made that, not to worry, the library will hire people who love books, who love providing “good customer service,” said Dixon, according to minutes from the meeting. “I am skeptical that this will be sufficient to maintain the high level of professional knowledge that librarians provide today.”
The new structure also eliminates dedicated youth service librarians. Under the new plan, programming librarians would handle programming and outreach from children’s reading programs to services for seniors, as well as programs like computer training. Increasing the breadth of programming that librarians are responsible for is in line with the Beta Project’s emphasis on cross-trained librarians who can fill in at any position, an expansion of their role that some librarians worry would spread programming experts too thin.
Also troubling to librarians was the lack of input that library staff and community members had regarding the new plan. While staff members were consulted on the Strategic Plan that was approved last year, many aspects of the Beta Project came as a surprise to staff. “This was the beginning of rolling out a whole new model of service without any input from the community,” said Jennifer McCullough, president of the Fairfax County Public Libraries Employee’s Association. She and other librarians were struck by the distance between the strategic plan and the Beta Project, which was being proposed as a model for Fairfax County Public Libraries going forward. “I was surprised, because I had expected something that staff could look at and be pleased or proud to support,” said McCullough. “Instead, there were a lot of issues.” Many of the 200 community members on hand for a county board of supervisors meeting where implementation of the plan was suspended earlier this month shared McCullough’s concerns about a lack of input.
Sam Clay, though, describes the Beta Project as “the natural progression from approval of the Strategic Plan to actionable steps.” Records show the plan was developed with input from customer surveys and meetings with branch managers, as well as consultation with other county libraries, such as King County Library System in Washington State. That’s how Beta Project tenets like the single service reference and customer service desk and programming staff who spend less time in the stacks and devote their work hours to developing and implementing community outreach came into being, though records show that only library management and the FCPL board of trustees were consulted on the creation of the customer service specialist position.
Clay said he was surprised by what he characterized as a “vitriolic” reaction to the suggested staffing changes, pointing out that changing the minimum requirement for the position would not disqualify trained librarians from these positions—just open them up to people without librarian training as well. However, customer service representatives take home a mean annual wage of $33,110, according to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to $42,730 for a librarian, making it likely that a cost-conscious administration would choose to select employees who meet only the minimum requirement. In particular, Clay, who himself holds an MLS from the University of North Carolina but has never worked in a library except as director, cited library managers as a position where people with more and different management experience but not an MLS could bring valuable skills to the table.
The FCPL Beta Project was put on hold earlier this month by the library Board of Trustees, at the request of county supervisors. Board of Trustees members have organized a committee that will oversee several public meeting on the proposed changes. That committee will report back to the Board with their findings by November 19.
In the meantime, FCPL is looking down the barrel of another round of budget cuts. Next year’s county budget slashes almost $650,000 from FCPL coffers. While the lion’s share of those cuts—$374,237—will be cut from materials acquisition, nearly $275,000 will be eliminated from the staffing budget. For Clay, just being able to prevent layoffs in the face of continuing cuts is a victory, and he points out that the Beta Project and Strategic Plan both involve no layoffs of existing staff, instead cutting costs by eliminating unfilled positions through attrition. For his part, Clay doesn’t think the changes proposed in the Beta Project are perfect. But with circulation down 9 percent since 2010, visits to libraries falling 8 percent in the same time span, and cuts coming ever closer to the bone, it’s clear to him that FCPL policies and practices need to evolve to provide patrons with what they want while operating under tighter budgets. “At some point,” Clay said “we’ve got to change what we’re doing.”