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Fairfax County Steps up War on Public Libraries

This is an op-ed from Terry Maynard of the Reston 2020
Committee of the Reston Citizens Association.
Fairfax County’s decade-long war to dismantle our public
library system has reached new depths: First, the County is
planning a partial closure of its Sherwood Regional Library
in Alexandria beginning in January. Second, the Board of
Supervisors is pursuing an audit of the “Friends of the
Library,” which has occasionally and diplomatically
criticized the Board’s oversight of the County public library system.
The move to close the second floor of the Sherwood Regional Library for all but 20 hours per week
because of budget cuts is only the latest insult to the people of the County who have seen their County
library budget cut by more than 20% as overall County spending has increased by 15% in the last ten
years.

Since FY2007, spending on our libraries has declined by 22% while overall
County spending has increased by 15%.
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Now the second-richest county in the country spends less per capita on its library system than any other
area jurisdiction—a third less per household than Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Prince William
counties and much worse compared to others, Washington, DC, spends more than twice as much per
household.

County spending per household on our library system pales in comparison
with other area systems and even a small, poor, rural county in western Maryland.
And that is only part of the story. During a decade when the library system should have been conserving
its assets as budgets shrunk—especially the books and other materials it has already paid for—it has
thrown out more than 2.5 million items in its collection. It is, in fact, throwing out taxpayer property for
petty and contradictory reasons. For starters, books get thrown out because of minor damage from
use—and thrown out after two years if they are not used and, therefore, undamaged. With new
purchases limited by the budget cuts as well as administration intent, the library system has had a net
inventory loss of more than 440,000 items over the last decade, with small increases in the non-book
(DVDs, CDs, etc.) and young adult books offset by the loss of more than 400,000 books for adults and
more than 100,000 books for children. That’s a 27% reduction in library collection items per capita in
the last decade.

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The County library’s inventory of books for adults has declined by 29% and
the children’s book collection has been cut 12% since 2004.
The deterioration in the library materials collection has had the expected result: Fewer people use our
County libraries now than they did when it was better funded, better staffed, and had a reasonable
variety of materials. County data shows that the collection materials inventory peaked in 2005 at 2.8
million items and the budget peaked in 2007 at $33.8 million. Lagging behind the budget and collection
cuts, library usage grew, especially during the Great Recession, but now things have changed.
“Contacts”—the broadest gauge of library use—dropped from a peak of 50.8 per million residents in
FY2010 to an estimated 35.7 per million FY2014, a more than 40% reduction in overall library use. The
number of library cardholders (“registered users”) dropped by 37,000 people in just three years from
495,000 cardholders in FY2011 to an estimated 458,000 in FY2014. Combined with the declining
availability of materials to actually use in-house or borrow, circulation has dropped 17% from 13.4 items
per capita in FY2009 to estimated 11.5 items per capita in FY2014.
The library is even experiencing huge declines in its online contacts with Fairfax County. In this internet
age, County library website page views have dropped by more than 60% from 22.0 million in FY2010 to
8.4 million in FY2014 according to County budget documents. Specifically, the Library budget shows
page views dropped by 25% in FY2011 and 46% in FY2012 over the preceding year. It estimates smaller
declines in the last two years—and doesn’t dare show the totals (but we can do the arithmetic). So
much for the vaunted “digital public library of the future!”

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County library usage has dropped substantially since 2010 across virtually
all indicators tracked by the County despite continuing population growth.
Now the County is taking direct aim at the libraries and those who use and support them. The partial
closure of Sherwood Regional calls for closing the second floor of the library except for four hours
Sunday-Thursday afternoons because of a staffing shortage. (And, yes, the County has reduced full time
library positions 14% over the last decade—and left many vacant positions unfilled for months.) The
County’s move not only reduces community access to books, it also cuts access to Sherwood’s computer
lab often used by the community’s less fortunate, especially their children. It also closes all the library’s
public meeting rooms except four hours, five days per week. And it also limits community access to the
offices of a non-profit seniors program office—Mount Vernon at Home—on the library’s second floor.
And on December2, Board Chairman Sharon Bulova directed County staff to conduct an audit of the
“Friends of the Library,” who have been mildly critical of the Board’s oversight of the County library
system. The Friends are independent organizations linked to a specific library branch. They are private,
volunteer 501(c)3 organizations required to file federal tax returns. They are not County government
entities. While it remains unclear what authority Chairman Bulova has to order an audit of these private
enterprises, those audits ought to put a crimp in Friends of the Library criticism of the Board and County
administration for its dismantling of the library system as well as cut their much-needed donations to
the local public libraries.
In the process of ordering the audit, Chairman Bulova essentially rejected a letter and resolution by the
County Federation of Citizens Associations (FCFCA) calling for an “independent comprehensive audit”
(not another pro forma inside County staff exercise) of (a) the County library’s finances and (b) the
library’s collection inventory (books, DVDs, etc.), agreeing only to (c) an in-house audit of the
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Departmental Gift Fund. These entities, of course, are County government enterprises that Chairman
Bulova doesn’t want exposed to criticism through an independent outside audit. Reportedly Chairman
Bulova has claimed that the FCFCA asked for the audit of the Friends of the Library, although that is
clearly not the case. What Chairman Bulova means is that the FCFCA was really asking for it for putting
forward a call for an audit of the library.
The actions of the Board of Supervisors and County and Library administration, including misleading the
passive and trusting Library Board of Trustees--which is supposed to protect and advance the County’s
library system under state law--are unconscionable. Even now, the Fairfax County Public Library system
ranks in the bottom quarter of the region’s public library systems according to the national Library
Journal Index of Public Library Service, and it’s getting worse every year.
The Board of Supervisors must begin re-investing in our County’s libraries, restoring its budget, its staff,
and its collection to respectable numbers for the country’s second wealthiest county. Maybe then
patrons will return to our public libraries and we can have a County worthy of one that presumes to be
generous to the less fortunate, a center of learning and knowledge, and a place to raise families. Until
then, the Board’s war on our public library system is misguided, cynical, sickening, and worthy of
retribution in the 2015 Board election.

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