Library supporters fight proposed staff cutsBoard of Trustees pushes back decision on changes to October
by Kali Schumitz Staff writer
Library employees and volunteers are working to delay, or possibly stop, the implementation of a new staffing model for county libraries.
The proposed changes are aimed at reducing the number of people needed to operate a library, to reduce the cost of library operations.
The Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees has delayed proposed beta tests of the new model until at least October. The beta program was originally supposed to go into effect at Reston Regional Library and Burke Centre Library on Sept. 1.
Library staff are working to provide the board with additional information on the program before the September board meeting, library director Sam Clay said. The board will decide at that time whether the program should go ahead as scheduled.
Library staff currently fall into two main categories, information and circulation. The primary change in the beta tests will be to use dual-trained staff members who fulfill both roles, thus reducing the number of people needed to run the library.
At Reston, this will reduce the staff size from 20.5 positions to 13.5 and Burke Centre will go from nine-and-a-half positions to seven.
Michelle Miller, president of the Great Falls Library Friends, said there is a high demand for librarians’ time at her branch.
“We are very connected with our librarians,” she said. “A lot of users at our branch, they want a lot of services from their librarians and still want a lot of reference help.”
Library patrons are concerned that they won’t be able to get the same level of service with the reduced staffing.
The proposed changes will also mean there are no dedicated children’s librarians, and critics of the plan fear that will mean losing the people who have developed that specialty working with children over the years.
“I see libraries as an extension of the schools,” Miller said. “We are very concerned about the loss of children’s librarians.”
The staff reductions can be accomplished without layoffs, Clay said in an interview in June, because about 42 percent of library employees are currently eligible for retirement.
Another change that the proposal’s critics are unhappy with is the removal of a requirement for a master’s of library science for certain positions. Clay said the job descriptions now state that the MLS is “preferred,” instead of “required,” to allow more flexibility in hiring.
“Are we saying the MLS is no longer important? No,” Clay said in June. For example, he added, “A branch manager is an incredibly difficult management job, more than it is a library job.”
Sharon Fadgen, a retired librarian who worked for the county library for more than 20 years, said people with MLS degrees are “information specialists” who provide a valuable service that can’t be replaced by Google or other computer-based search tools.
The information and circulation staffs have years of experience and training in their area of specialty, Fadgen said, and they can’t crisscross roles overnight.
“Maybe 10 years from now this could work,” she said. “It would take a rearrangement of library school, a rearrangement of how you hire staff.”
The main thing library staff and supporters want now is more time and more careful consideration of the ramifications of the proposal, said Charles Keener, an information assistant at Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library who has nearly four decades of experience working for the county library.
They want the library board to hold public meetings or hearings, to ensure that the public is engaged and aware of the proposed changes, as well as have more discussions with library staff.
“We need to encourage everyone to hear all sides of the issues so they are well informed,” said Pamela Chin, a volunteer with the Friends of Reston Regional Library. “It’s a lot of stuff to swallow and fully understand the impacts.”
Keener said staff were not informed of the proposal until library administrators had already made the decision to push ahead with the beta tests.
“You can’t expect a huge change like this to be successful if the staff hasn’t bought into it,” he said.
Clay said he is open to holding public meetings but still hopes the beta tests can move ahead.
“It is going to give us so much good information about whether our assumptions are correct or not correct,” he said.