Column: Library Board and Masters Need to Rebuild Citizen Trust

Column: Library Board and Masters Need to Rebuild Citizen Trust

Remember the uproar last year when the Fairfax Public Library administration got caught trying to introduce their “Beta Plan” for Fairfax County libraries of the future? Administrators bullied the Library Board to sign off on it. Fortunately, some members balked, and the Board agreed to delay for one month implementing Beta planned for the Reston Regional and Burke libraries, in order to get public input. Without that delay, Beta would have started Sept. 1 and we would have had a Starbucks instead of a children's area at the Reston Library.

Then, a funny thing happened. Citizens like Reston’s Kathy Kaplan learned of the Beta plan and alerted the community. Library users and librarians were upset by the plan. Under Beta, books would be de-emphasized and stripped from shelves to make way for more digital offerings, community meeting space, for example. Professional librarians would be phased out to make way for a new business model—a la Walmart or McDonald’s—where staff would be lower wage “customer service reps.” Programs for children and teens would be phased down or out.

Even I realize times are changing. Information now is available in astounding new forms, many of which are on desktops in many homes or in the pockets of most people in affluent Fairfax County. Maybe the folks from Library Administration who concocted the Beta plan were visionaries shaping libraries more appropriate to our new information environment. However, they failed as visionaries by not even trying to understand library users and community needs. Finally, last fall the Supervisors awoke and put the Beta plan on hold, and directed the Library Board to plan a future direction for our libraries based on needs of and input from stakeholders. As part of this process, a public meeting was convened on June 3 by the Library Board’s Committee on Communication and Evaluation. It drew an overflow crowd of stakeholders. It did not go well.

The focus of the Library Administration was how to construct and carry out a broad survey of the community. One official mused about the merits of hiring a consultant to design and execute the survey, or having a joint effort of consultant and Library Administration staff, or just having the staff do it since funds are scarce. There was no mention of including users, stakeholders in survey design or execution. Nor was there a clear concept of what data was needed.

One could sense seething in the audience. When stakeholders finally were given the opportunity to speak, the message was clear. To rebuild the trust lost by the Beta experience, stakeholders wanted to be at the table from now on through survey design, implementation, data analysis and interpretation. Specifically, the suggestion was offered by several participants that the Communication and Evaluation Committee be broadened from just two Library Board members to at least three (so the sunshine law would be in effect for their deliberations) and to include at least a couple of user reps and librarians. Furthermore, the participants were not buying the in-house survey concept at all. They felt that was what led to the ill-conceived Beta plan, and now it is time for qualified, disinterested professionals to do the job. Time and again, users mentioned the trust that was lost and significant stakeholder participation in shaping the future is the only way the ruptured trust can begin to heal. I hope the message was heard, the lesson learned.