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Ashley Atkinson
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Expanding Access: All Paths Lead to the Library

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Fairfax County Public Library changes, updates and innovates offerings and services to bring its free resources within reach for all community members.

By Erin Julius, FCPL Marketing & Communications Director

For All People  

In 1939 the American Library Association (ALA) adopted a Library Bill of Rights. Despite amendments in the decades since, its main principle remains the same: “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.” 

In a community as diverse as Fairfax County’s, the population comprises people of all ages who speak many different languages, hold a broad spectrum of religious and political beliefs, occupy a wide range of educational and income levels, earn their living different ways, and have varying physical and mental abilities.  

In keeping with its role as described by the Library Bill of Rights, Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) continues to expand its offerings and innovate how services are delivered to provide access to all. COVID-19 pandemic precautions undertaken in 2020 also compelled FCPL staff members to modify and often reinvent delivery of its offerings and services — largely in ways that will continue to benefit library users long into the future. 

Access Services 

Beginning in 1993, many FCPL resources coalesced under the Access Services umbrella. Now a library branch located in the Fairfax County Government Center, Access Services removes barriers to services, programs and resources for individuals with disabilities. Personalized reader advisory, books in alternative formats, assistive devices and more are available to those who need them. People who cannot physically visit a local library are also eligible for delivery of materials. 

Technology to Close the Digital Divide 

The greatest digital resources in the world aren’t helpful to those without the tools to access them. “The pandemic showed us how many FCPL visitors want to use our services but were hampered by limited access to mobile technology, like laptops or Wi-Fi,” said Margaret Kositch, FCPL technology director. 

laptop with street sign reading library in multiple languagesPre-pandemic, FCPL provided a minimal level of wireless connectivity outside branch buildings. Internal Wi-Fi "leaked" outside, providing a weak signal that the public could use from the parking lot with varying degrees of success. When students and adults alike required strong connectivity for remote learning and working during the pandemic, FCPL strove to provide better, more consistent access. Exterior Wi-Fi signals were added to all locations that could support it, and, as of April 2021, all branches without parking garages have this expanded wireless access.  

Five regional branches are also participating in a pilot program offering Chromebook laptops to adult cardholders for up to two weeks at a time, allowing cardholders to work or educate themselves on their schedules and in places convenient to them.  

“Our role in Fairfax County is to provide all our users access to information online,” said Kositch, “And we will be increasing support for mobile technologies going forward.” 

Resources and Programming in Other Languages 

In addition to technology tools, a 21st century library offers much more than physical books. FCPL continually works to broaden both its digital materials and programming to better serve more people and populations in the community. Staff members work hard to ensure the library’s collection and services are accessible to populations who speak languages other than English. 

To introduce new users to the library and its basic features, staff created a series of engaging welcome videos in Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese. These videos are always available on FCPL’s YouTube channel.

EBooks en Español

illustration of man standing next to a laptop with "eventos gratuitos" textIn 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 14.3% of the county’s population spoke Spanish at home, according to the American Community Survey. So, when the library closed its branches to the public for several months due to pandemic restrictions in 2020, FCPL began a Spanish-language collection of digital titles that continues to grow. More than 12,400 checkouts from the collection of eBooks, eAudiobooks and eMagazines have taken place since its inception. 

Both FCPL’s catalog homepage and its OverDrive landing page feature booklists highlighting these Spanish-language titles, and an article about the expanding collection appeared in Spanish in the online version of Branch Out magazine’s spring 2021 issue. Read another Spanish-language article about collection development in the fall 2021 issue. The library’s Twitter account also promotes Spanish-language booklists with tweets in Spanish.  

Storytimes for All Speakers

illustration of man woman and childFCPL offers storytimes for children both in bilingual formats and in languages other than English. Spanish-English and Korean-English bilingual storytimes are both popular programs, as is a German-language storytime option. The Kings Park branch recently introduced a Hindi-English bilingual storytime, and prerecorded Mandarin storytimes are always available on FCPL’s YouTube channel. 

Kyung Mi Yoo joined the FCPL team in May as a library information assistant and almost immediately began a Korean-English online storytime. “Young children who come from homes with languages other than English is a fast-growing segment,” said Yoo, who taught at a university in South Korea. “Exposure to more than one language has many benefits; this kind of program can improve perspective … and can help kids of all backgrounds gain comfort with diverse cultures.” 

Storytimes and other FCPL programming went virtual in March 2020 amid pandemic lockdowns. With the resumption of in-person events, FCPL plans to continue with a hybrid model, offering both virtual and in-person programming.  

Accessing the Physical Collection 

FCPL implemented several new services in response to pandemic social distancing requirements, including curbside pickup. While branches’ doors were closed to visitors, cardholders could still pick up physical materials using the safe and convenient service. FCPL continues to offer curbside pickup for those limiting their time in public or those who just appreciate a quicker trip to the library. 

Branches resumed post-pandemic normal operations June 5, 2021, with new hours that allow staff to offer in-person programs on several weekday evenings, give cardholders time to pick up or drop off materials outside of nine-to-five business hours, and enable community organizations to reserve available public spaces on evenings and weekends. 

When it comes to dramatically lowering barriers to access, FCPL’s Library Equity Access Pass (LEAP) initiative has directly benefitted the largest number of people. In partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), LEAP offers students fine-free library accounts. Begun as a pilot program in one pyramid of schools in 2018, LEAP expanded to include the nearly 190,000 students enrolled in FCPS in October 2020. What began as a program intended simply to provide another option if the child’s regular library card was blocked blossomed during the pandemic into an important avenue of access in support of students’ virtual and in-person learning. 

world language bagLanguage access also plays a role in supporting all families’ learning and reading opportunities. A total of 182 languages and dialects are spoken in the homes of elementary school students in Fairfax County, according to data from the county. Nearly half of FCPS students speak languages other than English, with Spanish by far the most common. FCPL’s collection of physical books includes titles — for both youth and adult readers — in Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese, and World Language Bags offer youth titles in Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu and Tamil. *Editor's note: As of January 2024, FCPL has added Nepali to the World Languages Bags collection.

Assessing and Addressing Fines

In 2019 the ALA adopted a resolution identifying library fines as a form of social inequity, asserting that “imposition of monetary library fines creates a barrier to the provision of library and information services.” 

Food for Fines logoFCPL has long held two annual initiatives designed to help relieve the burden of fines on its cardholders. Food for Fines reduces fines on an account for every nonperishable item donated to the monthlong winter food drive. Read Away Your Fines offers cardholders a chance to reduce their fines by $1 for every 15 minutes of reading logged during National Library Week each spring.

In its 2019 resolution, the ALA also urged libraries to “scrutinize their practices of imposing fines on library patrons and actively move towards eliminating them.” Earlier this year, the FCPL Board of Trustees formed an ad hoc Fine Review Committee chaired by Dranesville District Representative Sujatha Hampton to review the assessment and collection of fines on overdue library materials. 

In a report to the full board of trustees during its July 2021 meeting, the Fine Review Committee shared its findings that fines disproportionally affect youth and those in disadvantaged communities. In particular, the committee found there appears to be a direct link between low-income communities and higher rates of blocked library accounts (accounts that owe $15 or more in fines and fees).

View FCPL's curated content for more information and updates regarding access, technology, languages other than English and more.

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