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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

County suspends discarding of library books.

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Discarded children’s books in a dumpster.

Just when Sam Clay, Fairfax County’s Public Library director, thought FCPL’s public image couldn’t get any worse, Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) released photos of bins filled to the brim with discarded library books.

Acting on a tip from a volunteer Friend of the Library member, Smyth drove out to the library’s technical operations center in Chantilly, glanced into a bin and saw hundreds of discarded books. A few days later, she made a second trip, found twice as many tossed books and filled a box full of rescued books.

Clay admits the photographs Smyth (D-Providence) took of books in seemingly good condition paid for by taxpayers tossed in trash bins are a powerful, startling image.

But he insists the story is more complex than the photographs suggest.

“The books that were in the dumpster were materials that, in a professional librarian’s opinion, a librarian who holds an MLS degree, that these books were no longer usable,” Clay said.

“Have we never thrown away a book that was [usable]? Have we ever made mistakes? Of course we have. … But we go through all kinds of processes and options before the books go to the recycle bins. … So the material that was discovered, those were carefully reviewed and vetted by our best minds, by MLS librarians,” Clay said.

Clay said FCPL’s collection includes nearly 300 million books.

“It’s an incredible library asset that requires extensive library management; it’s not just about acquiring, but de-quiring. We don’t build enough shelves to house all of our books, no library does, because a certain number is always in circulation,” Clay said.

“But you see a dumpster full of books, and you think ‘My God, what are they doing?’ They are being efficient and good stewards of the taxpayer’s money by maintaining a vibrant collection, a great collection. We’ve done that in the face of 50 percent budget reduction in past five years for books.”

Smyth is not quite satisfied with that answer. After hearing allegations about trashed library books from members of the Friends groups, Smyth decided to investigate the claims herself. On Aug. 29, she drove to the Fairfax County Public Library’s technical operations center in Chantilly.

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Dumpster filled with discarded library books.

WHAT SHE FOUND, she said, was mystifying and dismaying.

“I found stacks and stacks of books tossed away in these bins behind the center,” Smyth said. A few days later, she went back and found that the pile of discarded books had grown.

Furious, she collected a box of books, several in seemingly good condition, and dumped them on the desk of Fairfax County Deputy County Executive David J. Molchany. Molchany is in charge of the county’s libraries and archives. The next day, Mochany issued a directive to all branches suspending the practice until the Board of Supervisors can gather more information, and the public can give its feedback.

According to Smyth, the library suspended the sharing of books with Friends of the Library groups from October, 2012 until May, when the library shifted to a “floating collection” system. Smyth said she estimated about 250,000 books have been thrown out since October.

“What really bothers me is the incredible waste of taxpayers’ money. We’re in Fairfax County, for Heaven’s sake, and our libraries and books are important to us.”

“Every system has discards, I assure you they all have discarded books,” said Sam Clay, Fairfax County’s library director, during an interview with The Connection on Tuesday, Sept. 10.

Although the discard issue was not part of the beta plan discussion, Library Trustee Chair Willard Jasper said he was going to launch an “evaluation and communications committee that now will determine where we are right now and where we want to go.”

He said David C.F. Ray would head the committee and that Susan C. Thorniley and Mary Petersen would also be on it, along with members of the public and library staff.

On Sept. 2, Tresa Schlecht, a member of the Friends of Tysons-Pimmit Library and one of five public speakers at the Library Board meeting on Sept. 11, sent an email to Smyth thanking her for investigating the matter:

“Apparently, there are several interpretations of the facts surrounding disposal of excessed books during the past year… I personally visited Tech Ops in Chantilly to request that we be allowed to pick up discarded books, especially children's books, before the books were placed in the dumpster by Tech Ops. I was told that my request would be considered, but that it was unlikely that TY Friends could obtain discarded books, as it would be unfair to let TY Friends have books simply because we were willing to pick the books up when other Friends groups could not.

… TY offered to share the books with any other Friends groups, or to use the discarded books as directed by FCPL. Thus, our request for books would not have required FCPL personnel time, other than an e-mail to me naming the time/dates for pick-ups, nor would it have involved any cost to the county. TY Friends was not granted permission to pick up discarded books at Tech Ops … ”