Report of the Ad Hoc Communication & Evaluation Committee of the Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees (November 1, 2013)


Report of the ad hoc Communication & Evaluation Committee of the Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees (November 1, 2013)

The Communications and Evaluation Committee was appointed by the Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees on September 11, 2013 to receive broad public input about the proposed redirection of the library staffing model, often referred to as the Beta Plan. The Communications and Evaluation Committee received input from interested citizens, including library frontline staff, members of various Friends groups, the SEIU, retired library staff, representatives of the Fairfax County Public Library Employees Association, members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and ordinary citizens who use the Fairfax County Public Library system. The Committee met on September 26, October 8, 16, 19, and 21, 2013. We held subsequent work sessions on October 29 and November 1, 2013. All meetings were publicly advertised and open to any interested member of the public.

Summarizing the input we received, we can report the following as the consensus of the Committee.

We recommend rejection of the Beta Plan as proposed, including its reclassification of Fairfax County Public Library positions. We believe that Fairfax County Public Library has suffered demonstrably from severe budget cuts and recommend increasing the County budget for library operations.

Beta Plan/Library Redirection

For starters, there is no sentiment on the Committee, the Library Board of Trustees, staff, or the majority of public commenters to move forward with the Beta Plan, including its reclassification of positions. We found that converting to a Customer Service Specialist Class was demoralizing to staff, and that such a conversion would likely cause those with a Master of Library Science degree to apply for positions in other jurisdictions – not Fairfax County. This would potentially create a future in which there were nearly no professional librarians in any branch. Accordingly, we recommend rejection of the Beta Plan as proposed. We also recommend that the Library Board of Trustees begin a dialogue with all levels of staff and the affected communities about the best way to address the Fairfax County Public Library’s staffing needs in a way that meets the public’s needs and priorities without eliminating the continued presence of professional librarians in each branch. We recognize this might still require revisions to current staffing levels and ratios of staff with MLS degrees versus those without MLS degrees in the branches.

Overall, there was broad and overwhelming support for professional librarians as an integral part of the Fairfax County Public Library staff. It was also a consensus that patrons highly valued trained children’s librarians and the unique role they play in early literacy programs, helping young readers become lifetime readers. Also, there was repeated commentary about the indispensable helpfulness of reference librarians. Accordingly, we recommend the retention of both in the branches.

There was less consensus about the practicality of the single-desk model. Some felt it could work, especially in smaller branches. Others noted long lines and the powerful disincentive to seek assistance or to return to the library ever again if the single desk staff were too overwhelmed to help patrons in a timely manner. Since Burke Centre currently has a single desk model in operation, we recommend more analysis on its strengths and weaknesses before implementing it elsewhere.

There was also a nearly unanimous consensus that assigning staff to only one set of tasks (e.g., only working the service desk or only working in the back) would be draining and demoralizing to staff. Accordingly, we recommend that any plan in the future reject such a component. Also, there were numerous references to the Fairfax County Public Library as providing educational services to all ages.

Funding

Over the past several years, the Fairfax County Public Library has seen very significant reductions in funding. From a budget of over $34 million just a few years ago, the Fairfax County Public Library is now down to a budget of about $27 million. These cuts have led to a more than 50% decrease in funds for library materials, and the impact has been noted by the public. There is widespread support for a restoration of library funding in the Fairfax County budget, which would allow an increase in spending on materials and on other library needs, including staff. Future funding requests to the Board of Supervisors should be accompanied by an analysis of evolving Fairfax County Public Library requirements, as well as comparisons to previous Fairfax County Public Library levels of funding and to comparable localities, both in Virginia and suburban counties in other states.

At the same time, Fairfax County Public Library needs to seek more creative partnerships that might lead to additional revenue, including the Fairfax County Public Schools, Northern Virginia Community College, and the local business community. Cooperation and support from the Fairfax Library Foundation should be increased. The work of the Library Friends groups should be recognized and encouraged.

Staffing

There were various references to significant increases in administrative staff during the recent budgetary reductions. While some of this resulted from reclassifications, we recommend a more thorough review of the ratio of administrative staff to branch staff to determine the proper balance between the two. Also, in the short run, we recommend filling current vacancies.

Technology

Technology is evolving at a torrid pace, and is likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Libraries need to adapt accordingly. However, we heard numerous comments that electronic format materials can never fully supplant bound materials. Also, given the rapid changes in technology, electronic purchases can become obsolete very quickly.

Floating Collection

While the floating collection, which has been in effect for several months, was outside the scope of our Committee, there were numerous comments on its implementation and impact. Many felt that imbalances remained in the collection countywide, while others saw benefits for patrons. There was, nonetheless, a sense among branch managers and staff of losing some control over the operation of their respective branches, and that there was a loss of understanding that collection needs vary significantly from branch to branch. If the floating collection is to succeed, there needs to be more coordination with branch managers to ensure it works as intended. Any system needs to recognize that one size does not fit all.

Weeding of Books/Reductions to the Collection

This was also outside the focus of our Committee. The Library Board of Trustees appointed a separate committee to examine this issue and report to the Board of Trustees. Nonetheless, we received numerous comments on this topic, and there was great concern among both staff and patrons about significant reductions in branch collections and corresponding cuts to the materials budget. Several commenters noted increasingly empty shelves and elimination of various classic literary works, particularly harder to find items. At the same time, we heard of collection reductions undertaken during renovations to, among other things, create more space for meeting rooms. In light of such reductions, many commenters mentioned the poor quality of the collection, particularly among children’s books and non-fiction materials. We recommend a more thorough evaluation of proposed collection reductions and whether creating more meeting space should be a priority over reading materials. Towards this end, we recommend more coordination with Friends groups before books are discarded. We also recommend restoration of funds to the materials budget overall to replenish depleted collections. And until the materials budget can be restored, we conclude that weeding decisions needs to consider the ability of the materials budget to replace what has been lost.

Friends Groups

There should be a consistent mechanism to add donated books to the library collection by the Friends of the Library. Friends groups are important to the support of the library and should be involved in the discussion about its evolution. The Friends also provide needed funding. Friends’ space currently restricted to 100 square feet, perhaps this can be revisited.

Recommendations for Further Study

There is no question that libraries are a highly valued service in Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax. That was the most overarching theme among the comments we received.

The input we received, while most valuable in helping the Library Board of Trustees decide how to proceed in the near term and what to report to the Board of Supervisors, reflected the sentiments of only a sliver of the broader Fairfax County community.

In order for the Library Board of Trustees to make a more comprehensive plan for its staffing future, it would need to undertake a more extensive public survey and comment process B one that is advertised with a time window certain. Survey data would ideally come from focus groups controlled for demographics, and would include input from users who can fill out information on site at branches or via an on line survey. Any survey should ideally seek the input of high school and college age students, who make up a key portion of the Fairfax County Public Library patron community. The survey mechanism itself would need to include more detailed questions than the three simple ones used during the recent five week process.

We would hope the survey mechanism would address questions such as:

  1. How do you use the library?
  2. How often do you use the library?
  3. Do the current hours meet your needs?
  4. Would you prefer the libraries to be open fewer hours if all your service priorities would otherwise be retained?
  5. If funding levels cannot sustain all current library services, which services that should be immune from reductions, understanding that the remaining services would then be exposed to reductions?
  6. What inefficiencies have you noticed in the library?
  7. What efficiencies would you recommend for the library?
  8. Is there something the library currently offers that you perceive as superfluous?
  9. Should the library move more in the direction of electronic media at the expense of bound materials?
  10. Is it important to you that every branch include staff with a Master of Library Science degree?
  11. Are you aware of your branch’s Friends group?
  12. Are you aware of the Fairfax County Library Foundation?

The survey mechanism should, however, avoid instructions, suggestions, or encouragements to citizens to organize or lobby to elected officials, as that is not the proper role of Fairfax County employees or of any materials provided under their auspices to the public.

At the conclusion of the survey, and upon full consideration of all information, including comparisons to comparable localities, both in Virginia and across the U.S., the Library Board of Trustees, and ultimately the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, will need to make policy choices about the level of professionalism, expertise, and effectiveness of services offered to taxpayers in Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax.

This report adopted by the Communications and Evaluation Committee of the Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees on Friday, November 1, 2013 is presented, as amended by the Board of Trustees on November 13, 2013.


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