Wednesday, August 28, 2013

RCA Stands Up Against Library Cuts

This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published on Reston Patch.

I love libraries.  Anyone who knows me can attest that I’m a big-time bookworm, and I have been since I was a kid.  The library was my candy store: all those books, representing the wealth of human knowledge, all mine to read for free. 

I remember going to Carter Glass Library at Lake Anne as a kid.  (Looking back, it’s amazing how tiny it was!)  Ever since Reston Regional opened, I’ve been a faithful customer.  My library card is a little dusty and cracked, but I always keep it close by.

As a fan of libraries, I’ve been alarmed by news about the “Beta Plan” proposed by the County library system.  And I’m proud that at our Board meeting on Monday, RCA passed a resolution opposing the Beta Plan and supporting the future of our libraries.

If you’ve been following local news lately, you’ve probably heard about this plan.  In case you haven’t, here’s a summary: The Beta Plan will demonstrate proposed changes to the operations of Fairfax County’s library system.  These changes will implement the Library Strategic Plan, passed last year, which is supposed to help the library system evolve to meet the needs of the future.  The Beta Plan changes will be implemented at two libraries (one of which is Reston Regional), and after several months will be rolled out across the system.

What sort of changes?  That’s where it gets ugly.  The Beta Plan would reduce the number of staff positions at Reston Regional by almost 35%.  (Library officials claim that they can achieve the staffing reductions without employees losing their jobs, which is hard to believe.)  The plan would eliminate specialized positions dedicated to children’s literature.  And it would change the job descriptions for librarians and even branch managers so that a Master of Library Sciences degree was no longer required.  Essentially, the plan sets up a future where our library needs will be served by a much smaller, less qualified staff.  This is progress?

At least we’ll still have the books, right?  Well, there’s bad news on that front, too.  The number of items in the library system’s collection declined by 250,000 since 2005. That’s a reduction in collection size of more than 10%.  What’s happening to the books?  Reports are that they are being destroyed, rather than sold or given away.  The idea of destroying that many books make me mad.

Fewer librarians, fewer books… seems like the library will feel pretty empty, doesn’t it?  But fear not: there may be fewer books, but there will be more computers, WiFi access points, study carrels, and meeting rooms.  As someone who plans meetings and community forums, I can attest that more meeting space is welcome.  But there are quite a few potential meeting venues in Reston, just as there are plenty of WiFi hotspots.  There’s only one place to go in Reston to borrow books, and this plan makes it that much harder.  Between this and the Barnes & Noble closing, it’s been a bad year for book lovers in Reston.

If these changes would make our libraries worse, why are library officials backing them?  Sadly, these changes may well have little to do with evolving for the future, and a lot to do with dramatic declines in library funding.  RCA’s Terry Maynard shared the grim facts about library funding last week in Patch.  Here are the lowlights: On a per-capita basis, County funding of libraries has declined by over 30% since 2007.  Sure, you might think, but we’ve been in a recession since then, and a lot of the areas of the County budget have been cut during those years.  Then consider this: the share of the County budget devoted to libraries has dropped by one-third since ’07.

Those are tremendously steep cuts, and it’s no surprise that the library system has had to take drastic measures in response.  A few years ago, they tried scaling back operating hours at library branches, which infuriated users.  Now, after years of additional cuts, they’re planning to serve the public with fewer books, fewer staffers, and less qualified librarians.

RCA believes that libraries are an essential County function, and they should be treated that way.  We believe the Beta Plan changes will move the libraries backward, not forward.  Changes in technology are real; people are moving toward e-books and online media, and the library system will need to evolve and adapt to those changes.  But gutted funding and slashed services don’t qualify as evolution.

So let’s throw out the Beta Plan, and draw up a new plan that contains input from all the stakeholders, including citizens, library staff and volunteers, and members of the library Friends groups.  Let’s have a real dialogue about how to address changes in technology and usage of the library. Let’s come up with a plan that works for everybody, that allows the library system to move forward and meet the challenges of the 21st century.  And while we’re at it, let’s restore the library’s share of the County budget, so that we’re making changes to meet the demands of library users, rather than the demand of ever-shrinking funding.

If you agree that libraries are a key function of the County and that the Beta Plan is a mistake, you can help.  There’s an online petition calling for the plan to be paused and re-evaluated.  And the Library Board of Trustees is meeting on September 11th at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale to discuss the Beta Plan.  If they see a room packed with library users who don’t support the plan, they’ll reconsider the direction they’re taking.

And while you’re at it, drop a line to Supervisor Hudgins about library funding.  She’s stated that she thinks library budget cuts have “already gone too far” and that she is “not in favor of additional limits to library services.”  Let’s make sure that her actions back up her words.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to return.  Before it’s too late.

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