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Supervisor asking questions after discovering thousands of discarded library books

by Gregg MacDonald

Staff Writer

A Fairfax County supervisor who discovered thousands of library books in a dumpster outside a Fairfax County Public Library system facility is questioning why they were thrown away.

Providence Supervisor Linda Smyth (D) said that when she heard last week from a union representative representing Fairfax County librarians that perfectly good books were being disposed of in dumpsters, she went to the FCPL Technical Operations Center at the Chantilly Regional Library and had a look for herself.

“I went on Tuesday and saw a commercial trash dumpster filled up to my waist with books. When I went back on Thursday, the books in that dumpster were up past my shoulders. I would say there were thousands.”

Smyth said she examined some of the books, including reference books, travel books and children’s books including some of the popular Harry Potter series, and found many of them to be in good condition. “I picked out a few and found an atlas of art history, a picture book on gardening, and even a six-CD audio-book set, all in pristine condition” she said.

Smyth said she took some of the books to Deputy County Executive David Molchany, who oversees the Fairfax County Public Library & Archives. “He told me that he would keep Library Director Sam Clay from throwing away more books until a new policy on discarding books was implemented,” she said.

But Clay says there are already policies in place, and that the books being discarded are those deemed by those policies to be disposed of in that manner.

According to FCPL guidelines supplied by Clay, 2.3 million items are available for checkout from Fairfax County libraries and branches always have to evaluate and refresh their collections. This is done by removing items in poor condition or that contain outdated and inaccurate information using FCPL “weeding” guidelines that say an average book is checked out about 50 times before it’s deemed as no longer usable. “FCPL removes about 20,000 books per month using these criteria. We also add about 20,000 new items every month,” said Clay. “That means one percent of our entire collection is being refreshed every month.”

But Smyth says the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

“You can have as many policies as you want, but if good books paid for by taxpayer dollars are being thrown away, there is a problem,” she said.

According to Clay, low-demand books that have not been checked out in the past two years are also examined by staff and FCPL’s collections department gives these to the library’s Friends groups for semi-annual book sales. Clay said that about 3,000 discards have been given to various Friends groups since May.

FCPL guidelines stipulate that discontinued reference book series, items in bad, soiled, damaged or moldy condition, and computer, medical, financial and law books more than a few years old are not deemed as usable or sellable and are the only books thrown away.

But Smyth says what she saw in the dumpster were a variety of all kinds of books, many of which were newer and in excellent condition. “There are many questions that need to be answered here,” she said.

FCPL is currently in the process of implementing proposed beta tests of a new library model aimed at reducing the number of people needed to operate a library, in an effort to reduce the cost of library operations.

The Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees will meet Sept. 11 at the George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, where the board will consider the new restructuring plan.

“These proposed changes have nothing to do with our policies on book discards,” Clay said Thursday.

But Smyth isn’t so sure.

“I think it may all be part of a strategic plan,” she said. “I’m not so sure you can say that it isn’t related.”

Other Fairfax County supervisors are also not enamored with the proposed new library changes.

Mason Supervisor Penny Gross (D) and Dranesville Supervisor John Foust (D) have both said they want the library board to conduct more public outreach before implementing the proposed changes and that the matter will be brought up at the Sept. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“That’s how we operate in Fairfax County,” Foust said. “We involve the public before implementing wholesale changes that will impact them.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com