Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Proposed Degradation of Fairfax County Public Libraries

By Mary Vavrina

Mark September 11, 2013 on your calendars. That is the date the Fairfax County Public Libraries (FCPL) Board of Trustees will meet and vote on the FCPL Administration’s “BETA Project” to “streamline” services at all county libraries. If approved the “BETA Project” is scheduled to go into effect initially at Reston Regional Library, the system’s largest, and Burke Centre Community Library. The changes include, but are not limited to:

• Drastically reducing the number of staff available to serve library patrons

• Eliminating the requirement for ANY staff member to have a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree


• Eliminating children/youth services librarians

Reduction in Staff– At Reston, the model for regional libraries like Tysons-Pimmit, the staff will be reduced from 20.5 to 13.5 positions and at Burke Centre, the model for community libraries like Thomas Jefferson, it will be reduced from 9.5 to 7 positions.

Elimination of MLS– Not only will the staff be reduced, but so will their pay grades and salaries. FCPL will be the only library system in the regional consortium of libraries not requiring any staff member to have an MLS. Librarian positions will no longer exist, because under Virginia law, librarians must have an MLS/advanced certification for any political subdivision with a population of at least 15,000. They will be replaced by “library customer service specialists.” Even the most senior “specialist” – Level V, the Branch Manager – would not need an MLS and accordingly like all the other positions will be downgraded at least two pay grade levels. A Bachelor’s Degree (four years of college) is the highest educational level required; some positions will only require experience/education/training equivalent to two years of college.

Elimination of Children/Youth Services Librarians– The BETA Project will eliminate dedicated children/youth services librarians, persons with specialized educational training and expertise in developing programs and working with children and teens. Such librarians are an extension of the school system and their expertise is especially important in Virginia where many children are home schooled. The BETA Project calls for changing the children/youth services librarians into “programmers,” who will be out of their libraries much of the time providing programs for ages from cradle to grave, as only eight hours of their 40-hour work week must be spent in their home library.

These proposed changes are on top of disproportionate, draconian cuts, to FCPL’s budget since 2009. In FY 2010, FCPL’s budget was reduced by 15 percent; virtually all of the FCPL exempt part-time staff (meaning they did not get county employee benefits) was lost; and FCPL hours of operations were reduced 19 percent. In FY 2011, FCPL’s budget was reduced an additional 6 percent, with resulting loss of staff and reduction in operating hours by 9 percent.

While Fairfax County is retrenching, D.C. is hiring 100+ new library staff. The Library Journal recognized both Arlington County and Falls Church City Libraries as Star Libraries in 2012. FCPL didn’t even make the list even though we are one of the richest counties in the nation.

Contrast Falls Church City’s approach in planning a major expansion in its library system to the way FCPL developed the BETA Project. Falls Church hired a highly respected library consulting firm that conducted extensive community research, as well as a vast number of public focus groups and online surveys before submitting an impartial and thorough proposal to their Library Board of Trustees. In Fairfax County, the FCPL Administrative team developed and began implementing changes unilaterally without consulting outside experts or gathering public or staff input – an abuse of taxpayers’ trust. It is interesting to note that FCPL’s strategic plan indicates that the Administration worked with a consultant [unnamed] and analyzed customer and staff surveys, as well as other statistical data in developing their plan; however, the Friends of the Library (Friends) are unaware of such surveys and were not consulted.

The Administration is determined to test its service delivery model at the system’s busiest library, including closing the children’s desk, purely as a cost-cutting measure without consideration of the patrons’ needs/wishes and the impact on the quality of services rendered. Once the changes are made at Reston, they will be permanent, even if proved to be unworkable. The bell cannot be un-rung. Such back door maneuvering should not be condoned by taxpayers.


Libraries are the heart of the community and an indispensable resource for county residents. Attend the Board meeting. Join the Friends and others in asking for a delay to allow for public meetings to provide input on the future of library services.


Mary Vavrina is vice president of The Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.




  1. Charles Keener









    George Mason
    Regional Library 7001 Little River Turnpike, Annandale 22003

  2. This is pretty much the “Fairfax Way.” Does anyone remember many years ago when the County closed all their branch offices, forcing everyone to come to the government center to transact business? I’m guessing the streamlining of the libraries is a first step towards massive closures. The rulers of Fairfax are well aware of the statement from Thomas Jefferson: “…wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government…” So it is better to let them be uninformed.

  3. ♡♡Ingrid Abrams♡♡

    This is awful. You want a library? Pay your librarians. You need children’s librarians. You need teen librarians. A building full of books does not a library make.

  4. I’m sympathetic, but not convinced. Nowhere in this column is it explained why an MLS is necessary to running a library, much less important. The author doesn’t lay out the effects of staff cuts – how am I to know that the Fairfax library staff isn’t bloated and overdue for cuts? It’s not explained here. Similarly, how am I to know that Fairfax library staff aren’t overpaid? I doubt they are, but the column doesn’t address that. And exactly what “specialized educational training and expertise” do Children/Youth Services librarians bring to the table that general staff can’t provide? Again, I’m sure there’s a good answer to this question, but it isn’t found in this column.

    Sorry, try again.

    • ♡♡Ingrid Abrams♡♡

      Why do you need an MLS to run a library? Good question. Thanks for asking. Well, first, if you don’t have an MLS, you’re not a librarian. So let’s start with that. Librarians are trained in reference services, readers advisory, and have exceptional research skills. Can non-MLS holders have these skills? Maybe. But this is usually after the non-MLS holder has spent many years in the library watching other skilled librarians. You need the proper information seeking skills. Why? Because most patrons that come into the library have looked for information in Google and failed. Anyone can Google something, but not everyone can come up with the right answer. Librarians have resources beyond Google.

      Why do you need Children’s/Youth Services librarians? They have specialized skills related to promoting literacy. It’s like asking why school teachers need a degree.

      So if you don’t want MLS holders working at your library, who DO you want.

    • There are several reasons public libraries need trained librarians. The most important is that librarians are in charge of selecting which books are appropriate for the library, how long those books should be kept, and when they should be removed. By purchasing items with taxpayer money, libraries put the stamp of civic and public approval on certain information. This is an inherently complicated and political act–perhaps one of the more important acts in an information-based society. You need a broad education in both information management and classical liberal arts (e.g., literature) in order to approach this issue correctly. Some information science, preservation, history, science and technology skills are also appropriate. Perhaps there are people with an undergraduate education who can perform these tasks, but if so, you need to take it up with the American Library Association, the state of Virginia and the federal government.

      Second, public librarians have an educational role that includes providing instruction to all different kinds of students, at all different skill and ability levels. As a public librarian I help children and teens with basic literacy. I also help people who are in college or graduate school sign up for classes, conduct college-level research, write bibliographies and works cited lists, use academic journals. Another task that has become fairly common in libraries is job search and resume assistance, even for people in professional and academic fields. If I didn’t have an education that measured up, I would be incapable of performing these duties. Reducing the level of education of library staff makes it more difficult for the library to serve *all* the patrons in a community, and that is absolutely contrary to the public library’s mission and goals–not to mention their legal obligation in most states. That is why you can’t technically be called a librarian without a master’s degree.

      Third, a lot of public libraries maintain unique historical collections as well as public records. These archives are very important to your community, both legally and in terms of cultural heritage and identity. It is important to have a specialist on staff who has the education and background to attend to these items. A lot of special collections have actual financial value. If you think the library field needs to be de-professionalized, *please* make sure your archives and special collections are transferred to an institution where people will secure and care for them appropriately. The loss, damage and theft of special collections and public records is of grave concern in underfunded library systems.

      Let’s move on to children’s and youth librarians. Giving children access to books is one of the best ways to set them on a successful path in life. It is one of the only ways to make sure all kids have a good start regardless of their parents’ backgrounds. Children and teens have very different information-seeking behavior than adults. They also need things explained to them in a different way. Since children are some of the most important and frequent users of the library, it is important to have someone on staff who understands them and whose job it is to advocate for them. It is absolutely in the state’s interest to do this. *Not* providing children with access to books and librarians has a measurable effect on test scores. Of course the long-term costs–lost opportunities, loss of literacy skills, increasing inequality, more crime, more welfare, etc.–will not be obvious for decades after the loss of children’s librarians. The day your child’s schoolteacher is replaced by a part-time daycare worker is the day your children’s librarian should be replaced by an under-educated “customer service specialist.”

      On librarians’ pay: I can’t speak to the specific budget situation in Fairfax County. However, speaking as a fairly conservative person, I do believe that people with master’s degrees–especially those in the highly competitive field of information science–should be paid adequate wages and receive the normal benefits of full-time work. That said, I don’t know of a single librarian who went into this field for the money. There are lots and lots of better ways to make money than librarianship, even if you just look at jobs in local government.

      This is a bit beyond the scope of your comment, but libraries are funded via local taxes and small state and federal grants. Unlike a lot of things your taxes are spent on, you can actually go use your library and participate in leadership through a citizens’ board or friends’ group. Plenty of library systems have taken it in the teeth over the last few years due to the recession. However, in general, public library *usage* has increased significantly over that time. Almost all libraries have free wi-fi access. Almost all libraries now offer public access computers–as well as free technology help and training. Something like two thirds of libraries offer e-books for borrowing, despite the frankly indefensible cost to taxpayers. Librarians also provide a lot more government and social services than they did in the past. At the same time, libraries have continued to provide traditional books and literacy help. Google and Wikipedia are no more of a threat to the public library than the Encyclopedia Britannica is–which is to say, not a threat at all. Quite the contrary.

      TL;DR: Libraries are empowering institutions that (with localized exceptions aside) provide excellent value-for-money. The only threat to libraries are short-sighted legislators who think saving a penny now is worth losing a dollar later. Such people are not fiscally conservative and do not have the taxpayers’ best interests in mind.

    • Thank you both – you filled in a lot of gaps that would have made the original column much more persuasive.

    • While you’re looking for librarians to justify the MLS, why aren’t you asking why it was justified to get rid of the MLS requirement? Because I didn’t see that either.

  5. Did FCPL outline how much more training will be required of their staff? Part of the point of the degree is to ensure there isn’t a gap with education and training for theory and methods of information services.
    With the reduced salaries of the replacements for the librarians, will the salaries of other library workers decrease? How are these salaries in comparison with neighbors systems?
    What will happen with the librarians already hired by FCPL?
    With the removal of degree requirement and lowering the pay grade of branch managers, who will be preforming the administrative tasks? Who’s working on the budget, the policies, staff training and discipline, annual reports, digital licensing, and contracts? Who is evaluating the databases for the high cost vs educational/information value? Who’s evaluating the print? Ebooks? What about the next big tech trend? What users are going to be considered while that’s being evaluated and who will plan the programs to teach it? How much should the people performing these tasks be paid?

    • The sight of books in recycle bins/dumpsters is disturbing to many people, including some library staff. However, weeding is a normal part of library operations. There is only a limited amount of space on library shelves, and it’s important to make sure new books are added to the library regularly in order to keep the collection updated and useful. Until they create a library with unlimited physical space, some books will have to be removed every year at every library.

      Librarians care a lot about books. Most libraries make an effort to sell or give away discarded books. However, there are some books that can’t–or shouldn’t–be given away. For example, encyclopedias, travel guides, health books, testing guides, atlases, phone books and textbooks become outdated quickly. A set of children’s encyclopedias from 1969 is not useful to anyone, even if it looks new. Books that contain outdated scientific or medical knowledge can actually cause problems for people. Some books in the library haven’t circulated for years, or ever.

      Libraries in poor communities and developing countries need books that are accurate and in good physical condition–just like well-funded libraries. It’s not very cool to burden poorer libraries with cast-off books, or books infested with mold, bookworms or silverfish. The best thing we can do with books that can’t be sold or donated is to recycle them in an environmentally friendly way. The final determination is usually made by one or more librarians with collection development experience.

      Sorting books for sale or donation takes a lot of staff and/or volunteer time. If you are interested in volunteering for this task, I’m sure your local library would welcome the assistance. You will probably be welcome to take any books home that you want to keep or use for an art project. You can also support your library (and save books!) by attending book sales and buying discarded books. Finally, if you’d like to make sure a book stays on the library shelf, visit the library often and check out your favorites from time to time. A book that has circulated recently is much less likely to be discarded.

      • In this case, volunteers from the Friends of the Library pleaded with the administrators to save the books from the dumpster (they were not allowed to review the books during that time period). Desirable books such as Harry Potter were spotted in the trash. According to the article, it seems that the issues you mention in the response are not an issue – they had volunteers who wanted to review the books to pull out ones that could be sold to raise money or donated to children to have their own books.

        • Fair enough, but on the Harry Potter point specifically, keep in mind that the last book came out in 2007 (six years ago!) and a lot of kids have grown up since then. There are *a lot* of used Harry Potter books hanging around, and most libraries already have multiple copies. It’s not always easy to sell that kind of thing, even if it’s in good condition. So what’s going on in Fairfax certainly could be a problem, but you can’t judge that based on HP being prepared for recycling. And I say that as a Harry Potter fan. Of course, if you see it and you want to keep it, I don’t think the library should stop you, and a book should have several chances–book sale, free box, etc.–before it ends up in the bin.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *