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Rethinking the Library: A response to the proposed Fairfax County Public Library plan by Vera Fessler

Surely all can agree that no good plan for a public organization can result without complete accord of all the stakeholders.  The current plan is without that accord, and in the spirit of encouraging renewed discussion, I am putting forth four main concerns. There are more, and I had originally intended to refrain, but I cannot be silent any longer.

The four areas I am addressing are (1) the planning process itself; (2) information seeking behaviors and library responses; (3) staffing; and (4) fiscal support and the branch system model.

Planning process:  The proposal coming forth originated from two core documents: a report submitted by Joey Rodger and the library’s Strategic Plan statement. Although the resulting Strategic Plan has dazzling graphics, its content is less.  Both core documents overlook a key element in the library’s role in the community. In earlier reports, Ms. Rodger consistently highlighted the educational role of the public library in addition to its recreational and cultural roles.  All three are rooted in the statutes defining public libraries in the Commonwealth, and the mission statement of the Fairfax County Public Library is clear in naming “recreational, educational, and informational” needs of the community.  That omission – accidently or deliberate – has resulted in shading the proposal into directions of the library being a very non-essential  component in the community.  I differ strongly with this stance, and I believe many citizens would as well.  The public library is a key to education support as well as the gateway to authoritative, unbiased and verified information. 

Describing library users as “customers” has become very popular, however it can lead to the misunderstanding that only those people who can and choose to physically visit a library branch need be considered.  After all, “customers” can go elsewhere in the mall, right?  This denies the historical roots of the public library movement in the subscription library.  In the public library every interest sector of the community is a subscriber in the truest sense. In return for that inclusion, many previously private interests incorporated and contributed very directly to the content of the public library. For example, in virtually every public library in the nation, the repository of local history is there, including maps, pictures, legal documents, personal papers, books, and so on.  Subscribers are stakeholders, and their inclusion is critical to both planning and support.  Fairfax may be blessed or cursed by being relieved from the requirement of being reauthorized every few years by the voters; that re-affirmation does ensure that the needs and wishes of the groups served are well understood and well supported. 

Not since the full participation of Brue Richards (FCPL Board of Trustee member assigned to represent technology) and Linda Hunt (FCPS Head of Libraries) in the competitive selection of the Inlex system in the mid-1980’s has there been any direct community involvement in library planning and processes. (That project involved full inventory, record conversion, equipment and program selection for both organizations in concert.  It was accomplished on time and within budget.) There are no outcome projections on how the library proposes to serve the educational, business, health, government, civic participation and development, non-profit, cultural, or arts communities. It is insufficient to replace those measures with “customer satisfaction” surveys if  the intention is to have a relevant public library. Indeed, in the past few years, quite aside from budget considerations, many supports have been jettisoned: the library no longer has a de facto business librarian, let alone a business section, a health information specialist and working partnerships with the Inova Health Libraries, music resources and in form,  -- all of these and many more assets did exist and were deemed not part of FCPL service in the not too distant past. They do not represent fiscal strains but emphasis. Exclusion of appointed and empowered representatives of these groups is critical. The existing planning process has been one of successively diminishing library roles.
The proposed implementation plan further does not follow from the rhetoric of the published Strategic Plan. While it purports to support increased branch level innovation and responsiveness, it takes away the ability to do just that.  The abolition of branch, i.e., community and interest based collections in favor of a single “floating collection” is one example of just that disconnect.
My recommendation: It is possible to achieve a plan meeting community stakeholder needs and restraints.  There has been support for the process leading to just that in successive publication by the Library of Virginia’s Planning for Library Excellence: Standards for Virginia Public Libraries. In its introduction, it clarifies its intention to be used not just by librarians but to “ be available to, and used by, boards of trustees, governing officials, members of funding agencies, and  community support groups in planning at the local level and withinthe context of regional and state library serviced.. . .”  The Fairfax County Public Library has been a participating creator of this document in at least the last two editions; as such it seems imperative to use this resource, make it widely available, and work toward convening a strong planning advisory board along interest representation. There are also models for this process. One of the most notable is the Multnomah Public Library in Oregon, one of the highest ranking public libraries in the nation and in a community much like Fairfax in many ways.
Changing Information Seeking Patterns:  There can be little doubt that information seeking practices have hanged with the explosive growth and access of the Internet. However, information seeking has become more, not less complex.  The role of the information consultant/broker/manager/librarian has become more, not less, essential to successful  identification and application of information to all needs. The incredible popularity of the volunteer expert librarian lead Model Investment Club of Northern Virginia (www.micnova.org ) attests to that. Meeting monthly in the Tyson’s Pimmit Regional Library the group studies and learns together –albeit using databases from the Arlington Public Library and they have been unsuccessful in having requests for FCPL databases to not “time out” in their presentations.  That example demonstrates two facts: FCPL’s disengagement from information specialist librarians and the real need in the community for just that.  Information queries which can be answered while standing in front of a busy multipurpose desk are surely few and far between: information consultative sessions to groups and individuals engaging in interactive processes in more comfortable settings  are increasingly in demand. One need only look at the number of public libraries in the Commonwealth, all smaller than Fairfax and less well funded, engaging in the practice of embedded information librarians in the community. Articulation of that need will never arise from a “customer survey” but may well be identified in a more rigorous planning and assessment process.
Nor is it the expectation in today’s world that one need to go to a place in order to seek information.  The expectation is quite the opposite: one can seek information from where he/she needs it –via phone, e-mail, Internet,  chat,  whatever.  These  also an expected services of public libraries and offered by the great majority of them.  Indeed, they were offered by FCPL until the very recent past. Ending them was not dictated by budget constraints, and FCPL acknowledges this expectation on its own website by linking to the Library of Congress. That link is an embarrassment and an affront: it attempts to absolve FCPL of the function of responding to e-mail queries while at the same time directing users to an often wrong source, further adding to their frustration.  The Library of Congress neither collects nor provides information for all subjects. It is restricted to its scope of coverage. One glaring example is that  health information – one of today’s hot topics—is out of scope for the Library of Congress.  That information is available on some public access National Library of Medicine sources or to its reference services via referral from health information libraries for questions that exceeded local resources. That arrangement did exist for many years at FCPL: a skill health information librarian fielded all questions within the system, forwarded ones for which she did not have resources to the Inova Health Sciences Library, and further would be forwarded to the National Library of Medicine if needed. There was no cost to FCPL for this arrangement, only  knowledge of the process.  There are multiple other instances. The point is that FCPL is not only omitting a service, but also promulgating false information. In its plan of “customer service” the library would do well to have strong “information services” librarians.
Staffing:   Although there is no apparent call to eliminate librarian positions in the Strategic Plan, the proposal at hand does just that. There are very long term implications of this move, crippling any future planning efforts: (1) it reduces the library to a series of discreet tasks with the focus on hours of branch  operations and “efficiencies”, and (2) it denies the importance of development meaningful for the community it serves.  The argument that there are not librarians with “management” skills is not borne out in any measure I could find.  Within the field of library and information science there are great ranges of specializations and skills.

While it is true that leisure browsing resources do not require professional oversight – as it certainly does not at Barnes and Noble for example—a leisure collection is not a critical need to the community and thus not worthy of its focus.  Indeed Barnes and Noble and other large generalized loosely organized book stores have been showing decreasing profits every year while smaller community tailored book stores are increasingly profitable.  The per square foot sales are in inverse proportion to size according to the American Booksellers Association.
By successively curtailing the role of the library over the past 20 or more years, the expertise of librarians has been denied to the community, e.g., resources addressing specific needs for small businesses or non-profits or new citizens. Those librarians bold enough to independently develop services and resources responsive to community needs have been reminded that they are not authorized to do so and have been reprimanded or worse. Librarians have been masters of collaboration and collegiality for decades, bringing rich arrays of community solutions – like the librarians in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library with their children’s theater, those in Cerritos with a fully equipped high tech conference center in the second floor of their library (booked a year in advance and revenues significantly supporting the library itself),  those working with schools bringing multilingual reading readiness workbooks to preschoolers, the list of collaborations with theaters, galleries, and other cultural and educational institutions is legion.  Many of these libraries have resources far scarcer than FCPL. In the past, FCPL librarians have spearheaded notable research and demonstration program with federal grant funding form the Institute of Museum and Library services. There projects focused on specific groups, e.g., elderly in congregate housing, military, transient child populations, and provided successful solutions to knotty national problems. They were adapted elsewhere. They were never continued at FCPL.
This is a time of scarcity. However, FCPL’s community, next director, and board will be severely crippled by the removal of accredited masters degrees for the positions of librarian, including those in support areas such as cataloging. To drop that requirement will push FCPL back to the era of the 1950’s, when there was no such requirement. There was no requirement in that same time period that teachers be credentialed.  There would be outrage if FCPS were to drop that requirement today. There should be similar outrage to drop that requirement for librarians. Excellence, not scale not efficiency at the cost of relevance, needs to be the focus. It is possible to have libraries without buildings. It is not possible to have libraries without librarians –only friendly warehouses.
Fiscal support: Everything in the proposed plan assumes funding limited to county funding.  Public library funding is a scarcity nationally, and has led to the realization that such reliance is not a sustainable model. In their roles, directors have included marshaling resources to realize their mission. Successful abound.  They include shared facilities, collaborations, consortia, public/private partnerships, sponsorships and funding. All of these require negotiated  compromises, shared responsibilities, flexibility. There are already many foundations in place—the COG reciprocal agreements for example. The standalone  branch in the standalone system is surely not sustainable.

It is my hope that the points may spur discussion and action leading to a vibrant planning process and serious reconsideration of the dangers inherent in the proposal before us now. The stifling of the flow of information, exclusion of broad discussion, secrecy and rejection of  varied opinions  are all antithetical to the public library movement and to democracy itself. FCPL staff and its community deserve better. I am imploring you that the proposed plan be defeated in favor of a community inclusive planning process using state guidelines

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