In Fairfax County, we love our libraries. That was never more apparent than last Wednesday, when the Library Board of Trustees met to consider the “Beta Plan” proposed by library administration. The Coutny’s citizens stood up – and showed up – to support our libraries and our librarians. And the Board listened.
As I mentioned last month, the Beta Plan would dramatically reshape how the County’s libraries operate, mostly for the worse: with a smaller and less-credentialed staff and no dedicated positions for children’s librarians. Combined with the shrinking of the library’s collection, driven by an aggressive book-culling program, our library system appeared headed for a dimmer future: fewer books, fewer staff, and less specialized service.
When RCA passed a resolution in August opposing the Beta Plan, the issue hadn’t yet crossed into public view. Library staffers were well aware of the changes, and some of the public had become informed, but it wasn’t yet a big deal. Over the next couple of weeks, though, the story exploded in the local media and among citizens.
What really captured people’s attention was the thousands of books in perfectly good condition, tossed into dumpsters rather than being sold or given away. A library destroying books instead of saving them? The idea shocked and appalled a lot of book lovers, including me.
Given the attention around the issue (including an article in the Washington Post), I expected the meeting to be well-attended. I showed up at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale at 6:30 for the 7 PM meeting, to ensure that I would get a good seat.
Turns out I should have come earlier; the parking lot was already full, and I had to circle several times before I could even find a spot! I knew then that our citizens weren’t going to let our libraries go down without a fight.
I walked into the meeting with Tresa Schlecht, the brave woman who was the first to photograph the dumpsters full of discarded books. “I’ll bet they’ve never had a crowd like this!” she said, and I agreed. The crowd was so big that the meeting room couldn’t hold us all; they piped the audio out into the lobby to accommodate the overflow.
Unfortunately, policy at Library Board meetings limits the number of public speakers to 5. Fortunately, the people who spoke, including Reston’s own Kathy Kaplan, were passionate and united in opposition to the Beta Plan. As if to stress how personal this issue is, each speaker started by talking about her history of involvement with the library system. Each speaker received rousing applause from the crowd.
Fortunately, the Board didn’t leave us in suspense for long. After reading the resolution passed the previous night by the Board of Supervisors, which called for the Beta Plan to be delayed, the Library Board voted unanimously to suspend the Beta Plan indefinitely. Board Chairman Willard Jasper formed an ad hoc committee to solicit public input and figure out a path forward that works for everyone. He formed a separate committee to review the book-culling policies and recommend changes. Great news for us book lovers!
My favorite part of the meeting came at the end. The Board concludes its meetings with closing remarks by each Board member. Each member thanked the audience for attending, talked about his or her own love of books, and stressed the importance of having a library system we can all be proud of. The crowd applauded these remarks as well. It was a nice kumbaya moment, and I think everyone left feeling happy.
This was a great victory for library employees and patrons alike. We reaffirmed our commitment to quality library service. The Board heard from the people and acted accordingly. And we reframed the debate: instead of arguing over the Beta Plan cuts, we can talk about providing great libraries that meet the needs of the citizens going forward.
There is a caveat to all this good news. We may have won this battle, but the war isn’t over. The ad hoc committee will report back to the Board in November, and we need to voice our support for our libraries and librarians between now and then. At the meeting, several Board members showed off the hundreds of emails and letters they’d received in opposition to the Beta Plan. We need to make sure they keep hearing from us. Email the Library Board and let them know how you feel. And when there are public meetings on the library’s future, show up and make your voice heard. (We’ll keep you informed of the meeting schedule as we learn it.)
We need to reach out to the Board of Supervisors as well. The proposed cuts were a reaction to a very real budget crunch that our library system faces. The County’s per-capita library spending has dropped by over 30% since 2007, and the library system’s share of the County budget has fallen by a third in that time.
In his closing remarks, Chairman Jasper urged all the people who showed up at the meeting to turn out again when he testifies at the Board of Supervisors budget hearings. He noted that at most budget hearings, the police and fire departments are well represented, but only a couple people show up to support the libraries. We can’t let that happen again. We need to show the Board of Supervisors that libraries are a core function of the County in our eyes.
The Beta Plan may have been a disaster in the making, but it did provide a valuable teaching moment for us all. One Library Board member made a good analogy in her closing comments. She compared the library system to a stoplight: We need it, but we tend to take it for granted unless it’s not there or it’s not working right.
This crisis has been a wake-up call. As someone who loves our libraries, I was glad to have a chance to stand up and support them. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another book-dumping crisis for us to give our libraries the funding and support they deserve.