OPINION: City Library Facing the Unkindest of Cuts

Falls Church Times Staff

March 23, 2011 

“It’s the latest, it’s the greatest, it’s the library!”

That song, which is well over 40 years old, came to my mind today when I thought about the impact of the proposed budget cuts on the Mary Riley Styles Public Library.  Not so long ago the tune still held true here, but now it would seem an appropriate local lyric would be “It’s cut, it’s shut, that’s our library!” 

Actually, though cut last year and facing further cuts this year, it’s not entirely shut, but long-time library board member John Lawrence warned at last Saturday’s town hall meeting that the potential loss of state aid, which provides 10% of the facility’s budget, could signal “the beginning of the end.”

That might take a few years, but the trend line is well established.  Last year the weekly hours were reduced from 68 to 64, due to Sunday closings.  Sunday hours will return under the proposed FY 12 budget, but the total number of hours will drop to 55 due to later openings and earlier closings during the week.

Shorter library hours will mean further staff cuts.  Six other city departments are scheduled to have one position either eliminated or reduced to part-time.  However, the library will lose two part-time librarians, one part-time library assistant, one part-time page, and see three other positions have their hours reduced.  

“It’s a huge, huge hit,” said Mr. Lawrence.  “You may say they were part-time, but that’s what most library work is.  I can’t think of any year in the last three when we haven’t had staffing cuts.  People who’ve been here 20-25 years have left and their positions haven’t been filled.”

More than hours and staff will be cut.  The book budget will be reduced.  The periodical collection cut in half, with the 21 foreign language publications especially hard hit.  The local history room, now open three days a week, will be closed except by appointment.  Library expansion, long deferred, likely will be pushed back once again.      

“I want to make it clear, the library board hates this,” said Mr. Lawrence.  So do I.

The library is one of Falls Church’s most popular institutions, routinely breaking circulation records.  More than 25,000 people now have Falls Church library cards, including 92% of the City’s residents.  Over 1,000 children participated in the library’s Summer Reading Program.  For the third consecutive year the library was designated one of America’s Star Libraries by the Library Journal.  

“It’s one of the markers that sets us apart,” said Vice Mayor Dave Snyder, upon receiving the library’s annual report in January.  Johannah Barry, Council liaison to the library, called it a “small organization, large in heart, that provides extraordinary service.”   Indeed it does, even in the face of the reductions imposed in recent years, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for the library to maintain its stellar reputation.

If you believe that the library is facing more than its fair share of reductions, speak out at the upcoming public hearings, either next Monday or on April 11, or at the town hall meeting on April 16.  Alternatively, forward written comments via [email protected].  To support the library directly, please consider contributing to the Mary Riley Styles Library Foundation Trust.

March 23, 2011 


17 Responses to “OPINION: City Library Facing the Unkindest of Cuts”

  1. John D. Lawrence — City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 9:01 am

    I’ve got a lot to say about George’ piece and the first is thank you! You’ve raised what the library is facing in a very clear way. I have just one clarification. You said “shorter library hours means staff cuts.” It’s actually staff cuts that force hours cuts. With the drastic staff reductions proposed by the City Manager, we have no choice but to slash hours. As of July 1 of this year, we will be open 20% fewer hours than we were at this time last year if this budget passes as it now stands.

    For those who are interested in seeing and hearing the debate from the Town Hall meeting, you can see it here (http://fallschurch-va.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=241). It starts at 1:07 and goes on with questions from the public scattered throughout for some time. You need to make sure to hear Esther from the Periodicals section (1:12) talk about the massive cuts there. More on that in a future post. Gary PaPorta makes a great point later on that, given the direction we’re heading, we’ll end up with a “part-time” library soon.

  2. Mike Smith, Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 9:16 am


    Right on target. When I was with the federal government the joke was that if Congress cut the budget we would just close the Grand Canyon. This winding down of the Library smells a bit like that.

    The library is heavily used by both school children and seniors (I used to call them old folks until I became one), both groups we claim to be important. There have been plenty of good cost saving ideas floated that could be implimented instead of hitting the libraries again.

  3. Michael Baker Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 12:16 pm

    I think that the library needs to “think outside” the traditional use. It needs to find when it really needs to be open and max out it use at that time. Why not have only afternoon and evening hours during the work week and full hours on the weekends. I never understood why hours were so short on Sundays. (Please spare me about church this is the Public Library). Open it from 4pm – 9:00pm, 9am – 9pm on weekends. That should be enough time for everyone.

    I know that affects the day programs and Seniors, and everyone else who doesn’t work full time, but if we want the library to be available for the whole City, it should be when the most people could use it. If groups want to use the library outside of the mainstream hours, then rent it, or have it paid time like a Parks and Rec class.

    I know everyone has had to accept that their favorite oddball periodical is no longer subscribed to but at one time we had almost as many foreign language periodicals as English language. Many of the periodicals no longer are very successful, only their names remain the same. Just like we no longer use stamped check out cards for books and such, just like the library no longer has Records (LP’s) to check out, soon it may no longer be financially astute to continue to have print periodicals when the content is available on-line. Many of the periodicals today may not be here in 5 years.

    If the Library is so important to everyone, then we’ll pay for it. If there was an endowment Fund I pay into it. Everyone complains about this and that being cut, but we all want our won special things preserved without any extra costs.
    I will be honest and say I don’t like paying for the Library to be open when I can’t get to it, I don’t like it being closed on Sunday when I could, for me I am not getting my “money’s worth.”

    I’d like to see e-books for checkout on-line, as well as periodical links

  4. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 1:20 pm

    I know public services are being cut across the board (and have been the past couple of years), but this one seems to hit all from young to old. The library is a center of knowledge, as are schools, and very important. I’d love to see school-type dollars go towards maintaining its viability, and/or, have the city or special groups quit with setting aside dollars for building segregated affordable housing and funnel some funds to the library. I’m only thinking out loud since I’ve always felt libraries are integral to socio-economic success – I’m certainly not trying to ding how others feel about school and affordable housing dollars.

  5. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 2:30 pm

    Mr. Baker:

    First, everyone pays for the library to be open when they’re not there because that’s the reality unless you can manage to be there 64 hours a week (soon falling to 55!). So I find your comment of “I don’t like paying for the Library to be open when I can’t get to it” to be horribly self-centered. It’s a public building, paid by the public, to be used (or not used) by the public for the greatest benefit of the greatest number. It’s not a drive-through. You can’t place your order in the giant clown’s mouth, deposit a coin in the slot, and have the doors open for the 5, 10, or 15 minutes you suddenly decided you needed to spend in the library. Unless you have the staff already there before opening (and after closing) to make sure everything works, I’m sorry, but this drive-through is closed.

    Many periodicals are online, you’re right. But in some cases you get limited access without a subscription and another role the library fills is that of providing computer and wireless access to those who don’t have it or who can’t afford it. You need an open library to be able to use a computer terminal. You need a staff to be able to open. You need adequate funding to have a staff.

    As for guaranteed full access to magazines, guess what? They come as part of databases that are expensive. Yet another thing we had to cut, very reluctantly. Also, to be quite blunt, the library plays a social function for many, who come to sit and read as part of their daily social interaction. Should we tell them, just read online and stay home, bathed in the comforting glow of your flat screen and forget about connecting in person with humans through the simple act of sitting together quietly reading?

    As for when the library “needs to be open” and when can we “max” out the use…well, the answers to those comments are simple: The library is almost always full. The economic downturn just exacerbated a steady increase in usage and there are frequently times during the day (during the work week when you don’t think anyone needs it because you can’t get there) when EVERY seat is taken and EVERY terminal is being used. Just because you don’t need it then doesn’t mean others don’t need it. Just because you don’t see it being used, doesn’t mean it’s not being used.

    On e-books, I agree. I wish we still had them. I used them quite a bit (audiobooks, that is) when we had them, but the fact is, they were not widely used. There were dedicated users, but the numbers were small and the service was not cheap. We’re looking into ways to get back to audiobooks, but the bottom line is that it will come out of our bottom line and we’re hitting rock bottom.

    When you wrote “if there was an endowment Fund I pay into it,” I assume you meant you would pay into one if one existed. It does. Please direct your donation here — http://www.falls-church.lib.va.us/support/foundation.html. Make the check payable to the “Mary Riley Styles Public Library Foundation Trust.”

  6. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 3:06 pm

    Now that I’ve vented, here’s an interesting statistic. Last year, we had 232,379 people visit the library when we were open six days a week. That comes down to more than a 1,000 people a day! Your suggestion of shortening hours the way you proposed would either: 1) disenfranchise tens of thousands of people who could not make “your” hours; or b) cram a thousand people into the library over the space of a few hours. Service would be impossible, lines would be out the door, and parking would be even more non-existent than it already is.

    Not to mention the fact that you would be telling the retired, the elderly, school groups, book discussion groups, non-working parents, and those who are unemployed (and maybe need a computer to help search for a job or who would just like some social interaction as a break from a depressing job search in a horrid economy) that they can all find somewhere else to go because this library is closed.

  7. Dale Walton on March 23rd, 2011 4:58 pm

    Library needs to “swallow” cuts along with every other service…..given the current state of things. How much, I am not sure. But folks, come on….wake up…..adjust your expectations….unless you are willing to pay a tax rate of $1.40 or so. We are living in difficult times, plus the City is paying for many mis-judgements and inaction over a long period of time. Maybe things are going to turn around….who knows. But for now and the foreseeable future, reductions in services, including schools (which I respect and value given I am graduate of the system) are needed. We all like these services….but something needs to give and it needs to occur across the board.

  8. David Phelps, Falls Church City on March 23rd, 2011 5:05 pm

    It is sad that the library’s hours are being cut. I would agree that other savings should be found, like my favorite pet peeve, the arborists! Last time I checked, trees don’t require arborists to grow, reproduce, or even die. If the city needs the services of an arborist, we could hire one. Otherwise, we taxpayers’ taxes are going up, those of us who work in the private sector have seen significant declines in salaries, pensions (if we even have one — I don’t) and have had to lay off people too. I take no pleasure in the government being in the same place, but, I suppose you could say, welcome to my world.

  9. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 5:06 pm

    Thank you Mr. Lawrence for providing the link to the endowment fund information. I think many do not know that it exists. I’ll reiterate:

    Mary Riley Styles Public Library Foundation Trust

  10. Dale Walton on March 23rd, 2011 5:18 pm

    Hey Mr. Phelps….how about taking your own trash to the dump in exchange for keeping library hours open….smile! This is an exaggerated example (maybe) but probably typifies some of the trade offs. We simply can’t continue with our same level of expectations…not at the present time unless folks are willing to pay much higher taxes (which of course people will fuss and fume about). Simply a difficult set of circumstances.

  11. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on March 23rd, 2011 6:16 pm

    Don’t read my comments as saying that the library should not take a cut. We “swallow” our cuts just like everyone else and as I said at the Town Hall meeting, we understand that every part of the City is taking a hit. But look at the numbers and it’s hard not to feel that the library is being singled out. Remember, for a library, the equation is this: staff=hours open.

    Go to the FY 2012 budget presentation from the Town Hall meeting (http://www.fallschurchva.gov/Content/Docs/FY12Budget/FY2012TownHall_Mar19_opt.pdf) and look at slide 13.

    — Out of 9 positions being eliminated, 4 are in the library. That’s 45% of the Citywide positions eliminated in the library alone! Does that sound fair? Sure, the positions are part-time, but, guess what? A lot of the library is part-time and these positions account for almost 25% of the total library employees.

    — Out of 4 positions with reduced hours, 3 are in the library. That’s 75% of citywide positions with reduced hours in the library alone! Does that sound fair?

    The library will take its fair share of the budget cuts, just as it has done for the past three years, but the key word here is “fair.” Slide 13 sure doesn’t fit my definition of fair. We can swallow cuts and we’ve swallowed a lot in the past three years, but there’s also a point where you just start to choke on it.

  12. Jim Breiling, North Arlington on March 23rd, 2011 10:01 pm

    Arlington County library allows residents of other area jurisdictions, e.g., Montgomery County, MD,, to use its libraries — this includes checking out books and audio recordings and accessing e-books. Fairfax County library has in the past allowed residents from area jurisdictions to similarly use its services. (I am one such person. Don’t know if this access is still available.)

    Some years ago the library for the undergraduate college in Indiana from which I graduated confronted unacceptable increases in costs if it were to provide adequate services. Other small liberal arts colleges in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio confronted a similar problem. A number of these colleges formed a collaboration in which each library would have one or more designated speciality focuses. Students at all of the participating colleges could draw on the collections of the other libraries. Perhaps such an arrangement could help public libraries in this area meet the needs of patrons in this era of shrinking budgets.

    (Note: The public library in Montgomery County, Md has had its budget cut from around $40 million to a bit more than $20 million, and an additional cut may be coming. Innovation, perhaps in the form of collaboration among public libraries, could be a way to help maintain ready access to a strong collection.)

  13. Sally Phillips, Falls Church on March 24th, 2011 6:34 am

    Mr Brieling, That’s a good idea someone thought of years ago. All public libraries in COG jurisdictions welcome residents of other COG jurisdictions. Falls Church residents use Fairfax and Arlington libraries and Fairfax and Arlington residents use ours. Fairfax has, as one of their specialties, genealogy. Arlington therefore makes no attempt to cover genealogy well, but concentrates its funds on another area. As one of the COG libraries, we are expected to do our fair share and have for years. We can’t expect other jurisdictions to carry us now. -Sally Phillips

  14. Michael Baker Falls Church on March 24th, 2011 9:44 am

    Mr. Lawrence is very direct in his statements. I’m not sure where he fits into the pantheon of interested parties. But his comments support my assertion that everyone wants to save money – as long as their needs are met. He obviously wants to have it open early, all week, and have a quiet & uncrowded library experience – and expects everyone to pay for that. That is not fiscally sound – we need to fund the library to provide the most services for the most citizens at the least costs.
    I was upfront that my comment about paying for underused hours at the library – it is self-centered, but I willing to say it. As for usage, that’s like averaging cars on I-95 for 24 hours. We all know that there are 10 times as many at 7:00am as at 3:00am. If the actual usage was charted by time, we certainly would see peaks of use and times when there were few, or no patrons in the library. (this doesn’t include the homeless who use it as a way station)
    What I was hoping that would be realized that by targeting the peak service times and cutting back at low usage time, the library might be able to maintain it’s current staffing and such.
    I would rather see a staff position kept than periodical subscriptions or longer hours on weekdays. I never said get rid of all the periodical, but some could be on-line, especially those with specific interests or foreign language. I’m glad some use it for socialization, but it that something we should subsidize with tax dollars?

    As for outside hours, if the City expects rental fees for rooms at the Community Center and park locations, why couldn’t the library charge for book groups or others wanting to use the facilities. Access to computers, etc. are all noteworthy, but why should the library have to shoulder those costs when its primary mission is under funded. Some locations have set up separate computer stations for job seekers – but charge a nominal fee for use to cover them.

    I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but everyone should understand that if the library is for everyone, then it should be open and staffed when everyone could use it.
    I do think the library could create more volunteer positions for students at George Mason to help with staffing. All of the IB students and National Honor Society students need community service hours. They are smart, dedicated, and motivated, and could bring some relief to understaffing. For peak hours they could check out books and restack returns.

    It will take creative thinking to maintain the excellence we have at the Library. But grousing about loss of our favorite times, or more patrons, or having to use the computers isn’t the way out of this crisis.

  15. Brad Gernand (Falls Church) on March 24th, 2011 9:59 am

    Response to Michael Baker: Hi Michael, your points are all interesting ones, and definitely worth considering during the current “economic drought”.

    Unfortunately the cuts proposed to the library’s budget would remove its ability to subscribe to these periodicals online… much less receive many of them in print. The cuts represent an across-the-board retreat in almost every area.

    The librarians, and the library board, are not grousing about losing favored perks such as preferred hours of operation. They’re grousing because they believe, with reason, that the cuts proposed to the library are disproportionate. The cuts are higher for them, compared with what is proposed to other City agencies. How can the library accommodate these higher-than-average cuts in the face of such steadily increasing public usage of the facility?

    You think the lines at service counters are long (with long wait times) now? We’re about to see these get significantly worse, if the proposed cuts are not made more proportional.

  16. Sondra Eklund, Centreville on March 24th, 2011 2:03 pm

    I work in Fairfax County Public Library, where our budget has been cut more than 30% over the last two years. I got RIF’d in the last round, and spent 6 months working in the county’s Office for Children as a Management Analyst at the same paygrade as a librarian. The Management Analyst position was MUCH less responsibility, much less challenging, did not require a Master’s degree, and didn’t help nearly as many people.

    Now I’m back at the library (after another librarian retired). The hours are reduced. And I don’t know about your library, but ours never ever has “few” customers.

    The schools now require students to have computer access to do their homework. For so many, many families, the library is where they get that access. Every single day, we have people using the library computers to apply for jobs.

    Here’s a blog posting I wrote about why libraries are worth every penny a community spends on them: http://sonderbooks.com/blog/?p=2785

    Here’s an eloquent article by Philip Pullman about library cuts in the UK: http://falseeconomy.org.uk/blog/save-oxfordshire-libraries-speech-philip-pullman

    The sad part is that the library can do so much good with comparatively so little. In Fairfax County, last year they had a budget “carryover” at the end of the year that was EIGHT TIMES the drastic cut of 13% of the library’s budget. In Fairfax, the libraries get less than a penny out of every tax dollar. And they offer services to every single county resident who wants to use them. There’s nowhere your tax dollar, I mean penny, can go farther.

  17. TFC on March 25th, 2011 9:16 am

    Sounds like the library got some good news at the work session last night. Council heard that the state money could be at risk if they face disproportionate cuts compared to other city departments. I don’t think we should risk the loss of this stream of funding.

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.