Library staff, supporters battling plan to overhaul library system


With a crucial library board meeting approaching, library employees and “friends” groups are mobilizing support from officials, community groups, and patrons to urge the board to roll back plans to restructure the library system and downgrade the professional qualifications of employees.

The Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees will consider major policy changes Sept. 11 at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale. The meeting, open to the public, starts at 7 p.m.

Among the key changes: the elimination of specialized staff dedicated to serving children and other age groups, the elimination of a requirement for a master’s degree in library science, the elimination of dedicated reference/information desks and instead having “single service” stations.

So far, an online petition opposing the changes has over 1,300 signatures. Browsing  through the hundreds of comments by petition signers shows how angry and devastated many librarians feel about the changes.

Library Director Sam Clay has been belatedly reaching out to gain support for his plans to overhaul the library system, following criticism from several library board members, friends groups, staff, and members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that he failed to seek input from employees and the public.

Library supporters, however, charge that Clay is spreading inaccurate and misleading information about the plan and downplaying the implications for reduced service to the public. Clay has been giving the impression that the “beta test” now under way in the Reston and Burke libraries is just a pilot test of the changes, when in fact it would implement a total restructuring that would be difficult to reverse.

Furthermore, some of the library employees who have been publicizing the changes in the library system report that they’ve been intimidated and threatened by Clay.

Librarians gain allies

The Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations created an ad hoc committee last week to look into the library situation. According to an email from federation President Rob Jackson, the committee has not taken a position on the substance of the proposed changes “but is concerned the county has not engaged the public sufficiently.”

The committee, to be chaired by Kathy Kaplan from the Reston Citizens Association, has been charged with investigating “the financial issues, the effects on library users, and the changing uses of our libraries” and will submit recommendations at the Sept. 26 meeting of the federation board.

The union representing county employees, SEIU Virginia 512, approved a statement urging the library board to “vote no on the proposed changes to the Fairfax County Library system and instead, allow community members and library employees to work with management to develop new cost-saving ideas for our library system.”

Union members don’t want the current plan postponed or tweaked, said a participant at the meeting. They want it scrapped and a new plan developed with input from all library stakeholders, including patrons, parents, staff, volunteers, and library friends groups.

Supervisors weigh in

Responses from members of the Fairfax County Supervisors (BOS) has been mixed. Cathy Hudgins (Hunter Mill) said she is “not in favor of additional limits to library services.” Several other supervisors offered more nuanced reactions.

“We need to see the results of the [beta] test before jumping to conclusions,” said Penny Gross (Mason). She said she told Clay he needs to “do a better job of communicating to the staff and public and he took my suggestion positively.”

John Foust (Dranesville) said: “Given our budget challenges, all county agencies are expected to find more efficient and better ways to provide services. I believe the recent proposal made by the library administration is  intended to be consistent with that effort.”

“I also believe that there has not been an adequate job of communicating with library personnel and the community regarding what is being proposed and getting their input,” Foust said.

Pat Herrity (Springfield) wrote an op-ed in the Burke Connection countering what he called “a swirl of misinformation” about the library pilot program. “The county is not suddenly making overnight changes to the way our libraries operate. Instead, we are going to run a pilot program at the Burke Centre and Reston regional libraries to see if the recommendations work,” he said.

In an earlier interview with the Annandale Blog, Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova said Clay needed to do more outreach with the pubic and employees, expressed reservations about downgrading staff, but said the libraries do need to modernize and reallocate staff.

There is concern among opponents of the library changes that the supervisors don’t thoroughly understand what’s going on—and what’s at stake.

The so-called “beta test” is not really an experiment; it’s a permanent change that could later be tweaked but not terminated, they insist. Also, the new “customer service” non-librarian positions were created and put into place before the beta test began. It should also be noted that most library employees do not oppose the idea of a “single desk” combining customer service and information services.

Library supporters also argue that the Q&A on the changes published on the library system website intentionally omits some of the most controversial aspects of the changes. It fails to mention the plan to divide staff into three functions: backroom only, service desk only, and program only. It also fails to discuss the downgrading of professional qualifications and neglects to explain that there won’t be librarians whose sole responsibility is to provide children’s services.


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