November 28, 2014

Books in Dumpsters Spark Debate on Future of Fairfax County, VA Libraries

VA1E.11 300x145 Books in Dumpsters Spark Debate on Future of Fairfax County, VA LibrariesCommunity 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.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is the Associate News Editor of LJ.

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Comments

  1. While most library systems with much less affluent citizens (Fairfax County is the 2nd wealthiest county in the US) are returning funds to their libraries as soon as they can, the case has not been made for the continuing value of libraries here. FCPL’s budget has been cut by ~25% since 2009 and projected budgets called for further cuts below the current 0.07 cents on the county dollar. Nearby District of Columbia library system increased its library budget by 20% for FY2014 to add Sunday hours to every branch & Montgomery Co. increased library funding for FY2014 by 10.5%. Beyond discarding books, the larger issues are about making that case. Do any of us in the profession buy the argument that libraries have decreased in value in the age of Google and smartphones, or that embracing new media beyond eBooks (from YouTube to Scratch or Makerspaces) doesn’t matter or that profession-specific knowledge and experience are no longer relevant? And yet, unless we teach our patrons and funders that truth, we are all doomed. Those of you who are in library systems where patrons show up to make the case for your funding, your excellence, and your impact: Who makes that happen? Is it your Friends groups? Is it your Director? How can we in FCPL build that constituency?

    • The Friends group would be a good start. I’m guessing they have been somewhat alienated by the dumping of books. I assume that Virginia law works in the same way that Wisconsin law does in that any funds the Friends raise MUST be spent in support of the Library. So the dumping of books that the FOL could have sold to raise money hurts in two ways, both by telling the Friends that they are not important enough to be given these resources, and by reducing the funds that they could have raised and spent in support of the Library.

  2. Fairfax County’s narrow outputs vs. outcomes system does not present a full picture of library use. Door counts are lower because library patrons are using our digital resources and ebooks. If library staff had been asked for input, management would be aware of what every librarian knows – the reference questions are fewer but the questions are harder. So many reference questions are now prefaced by “I couldn’t find it on Google, can you help me?” or “How do I find -” Librarians’ specialized skills are more necessary, not less.
    Fairfax County leadership should be aware of the tremendous amount of research that shows how early literacy support can stave off expensive educational remediation in later years. If Fairfax County wants to save money, it should be funding libraries, especially libraries staffed with fully qualified children’s librarians. Other jurisdictions get this. Fairfax County leadership, however, has deemed libraries non essential, and gives only lip service when pressed by voters.

    • Wow, why is this article even talking about books in dumpsters when the real issues seem to revolve around total lack of understanding for library operations? I am an MLIS-holding librarian and I can get behind the idea of paraprofessionals taking on more roles in libraries, but retail employees?

      “People who love books” are no more qualified to answer complex reference questions, formulate search queries, or determine information needs than people who watch House are qualified to work in a hospital. They’re not even trying over there in Fairfax.

  3. Your article is one of the better ones I’ve seen on this topic. Yours is a fair treatment of the issue. Many are full of inaccuracies and innuendo. One question, where did you get your information on the numbers . . . “quarter of a million books into dumpsters”? Who counted the books?

    • Fairfax County keeps very meticulous records of their library discards. They counted the books as they were marked out of the system.

  4. Kirsten M. Corby says:

    I am completely appalled at the discarding of paraprofessionals and librarians in favor of these “customer service specialists,” with nothing but an associate’s degree yet. Just what sort of jobs does the Fairfax administration think we are doing here? Library reference requires a college education to acquire the familiarity with methods of research and critical thinking skills that allow us to be information navigators for the public. Not to mention computer skills adequate to managing the ever-expanding jungle of technology and digital information. Not every reference worker has to be an MLIS, but college is definitely required. Customer service skills can be taught on the job. Critical thinking cannot.

    Having a senior administrator who never worked as a front-line librarian post-MLIS is a real liability in my experience.

  5. Like I keep pointing out to people around our campus who think they understand (but do not) everything about libraries, “You are right, it isn’t rocket science. But it IS library science.”

  6. “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.” Clay has been director for more than 30 years and obviously has no clue about libraries today. This is an absolute horror story.

  7. Tysons-Pimmit says:

    I used to work for FCPL, back in the eighties, when Sam Clay was first on the job as administrator. His big passion was “marketing” which meant “listening to what the public wants and providing said public with content.” The problem with this strategy for a public institution was that everything depended upon circulation, not quality. So for example, if Plato’s “Republic” wasn’t getting enough circulation, we were told to weed it off the shelves. Obviously not all copies of this classic of Western Literature, just enough to make more room for Harlequin Romances and the latest murder mystery pulp fiction.

    But here’s where Sam Clay’s nitpicking/control freak behavior got to be REALLY ridiculous:
    As a staff person, I was assigned a cubicle desk in the large back room at my workplace, Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library. In my evenings, I took art and design courses so that I could eventually leave the library and enter a career as a designer. The library was a full time support for me in the years just after college and before my career break into design. To decorate my cubicle, I took a drawing I had done of a Greek bronze head (drawn for an art history course), xeroxed it (using my dimes), and colored four of them in different vivid colors, a la Andy Warhol and the pop artists. I hung the four images in my work cubicle. This was not seen by the general public. You had to be another worker in the back room to see them (and you would have had to almost sit at my desk to notice them). Well, Sam Clay stopped by for a visit, with the branch manager and entourage in tow one evening, to tour the back room/media area. Upon noticing my artwork, he commented: “Are we coloring today?”
    The branch manager, Margo, had a word with me the next day. I was told about the incident, and told to remove my drawings! I couldn’t believe it. After that, I saw Sam Clay for what he truly was/is: A PROVINCIAL, PETTY, DOMINEERING RUBE.