Most times, public libraries are fairly benign institutions, treasured by their patrons, lauded as neighborhood amenities, readily accepted as symbols of a progressive and open community. In Fairfax County, a child’s first real identification, other than parents, is a library card, and the responsibility that goes with it. For newcomers from other cultures, free and open access to the public library system is part of the American dream, an opportunity that often did not exist in their native country.
In a jurisdictional sense, libraries are not considered by some as a core governmental service like police and fire, schools, and health. Some would argue that libraries compete for scarce tax dollars, and that the resource problem could be solved by charging user fees, or just close a few libraries to save money! That’s a “been there, done that” approach. Subscription libraries antedated today’s publicly funded, and open and accessible, facilities. More recently, some jurisdictions, most notably in California, have closed libraries because of budget shortfalls, and paid dearly in community dissatisfaction, and negative national publicity.
Fairfax County is not closing libraries, but community dissatisfaction is swirling around a proposal to reorganize how library services are provided. In a May 3, 2013, letter to the Board of Supervisors, Edwin S. Clay III, Director of the Fairfax County Library (FCPL), noted that “libraries are re-inventing themselves, meeting the new and ever changing needs of our citizens….We realize that the way libraries are structured, with one set of staff trained to answer reference-type questions and another set of staff trained to help with book circulation duties and customer accounts, is no longer efficient or necessary.” Mr. Clay said that the FCPL’s review of the system started with a new strategic plan, leading to “a new direction for the future.”
As technology provides more opportunities for accessing information differently, the effect on traditional library services that patrons have come to rely on is causing a public outcry. The planned “beta” testing of the proposed reorganization at the Reston and Burke libraries has been pushed back to October, so that the Library Board of Trustees, which is not unanimous in its support of the new approach, can have additional discussion at its September 11 meeting at the George Mason Regional Library.
The Board of Supervisors likely will weigh in at its September 10 meeting, too, asking for additional public outreach by the Library Board before they pursue the testing phase of the plan. Library usage still is strong, but trending downward as more patrons use electronic means to access the collection. In his letter to the Board, Mr. Clay noted, there are “sweeping changes in the industry overall.” The challenge comes in the tool used for the sweeping – a simple broom, or a high-suction vacuum cleaner? Might be a good idea to consider the former, not the latter.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.