Monday, October 24, 2016

Open Letter to the Library Board from Retired FCPL Administrator Vera Fessler

An Open Letter to the Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees

Dear Members of the Board,

Charles Fegan ended the last meeting of the Board quietly saying, “It’s a beginning. It’s a beginning.”  This followed a long presentation, recitation of a community survey, some conclusions and recommendations.   There were immediate responses of protest.  It is no secret that the meeting concluded a long period of FCPL decline; although it may be convenient to say that budget reductions were to blame, that is a facile and inaccurate answer, failing to explain the disregard for the very purpose, nature and structure, fiscal, administrative and political, of public libraries.

Like most people vitally interested in the public library, I pored over the presentation; I had recorded it and viewed it twice.  I printed out all the public documents and went through them point by point until I had a thick document filled with highlights, Post-It notes, citations, and, most often, refutations.  I was discouraged.  I suspect that staff and board members are poring over mountains of added comments. Suddenly I realized that I was reacting like the long-time academic, IMLS review panel member, proposal writer and judge, and that was not the answer for Mr. Fegan’s beginning.  The survey and its presentation represent remaining in the mire of the past, not looking to the future.  Refuting the presentation and its recommendations point by point does show its failure to provide guidance. 

Chairman Fegan’s words were the most important ones spoken that night: “It’s a beginning.” He spoke for the Board, Friends, staff, Foundation, a newly-appointed director, and the community.
The real question and answer that night was not found in the survey, the recommendations, the public responses, or  proposal.  It simply is: “What makes a good, even great urban public library, and how can FCPL become that?”

Although the question is simple, the answer is complex.  The answer rests in the careful balance of influencers which have served public libraries well and continue to do so in creating and maintaining the integrity and responsiveness of the institution rooted in the American devotion to freedom of speech and press.  The citizen library boards, whether elected or appointed, are charged with the overall responsibility for policy and purpose of the library.

Looking at the challenges facing the Board today in carrying FCPL forward then are:

·        Purpose and outcomes

The Library’s purpose is clearly, if generally, set out in its mission statement: educational, recreational, and informational.  Although those words have been recited so often that their implication is often not heard, but it is apparent that those purposes are interest driven—avid readers of popular authors, language learners, people seeking family ancestry or preparing for any number of examinations or gaining financial management skills, or people beginning new businesses, students of all ages, . . . the list is as varied as the population.  The Library is a trusted entrance into the realm of unbiased, accurate, and accessible resources. When the Library is successful, it is marked by favorable outcomes: changes in skills, attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, status or condition.

Outcomes and outputs are entirely different measures.  Output measures are necessary to determine staffing, hour, location and other workflow related adjustments.  However, it is possible to have very high outputs with negative outcomes: a good example is a large retail organization, which enjoys very high sales nationally.  However, studies in every community where that store exists has suffered negative economic, employment, healthcare, and wage impacts. Excessive emphasis on outputs can be very detrimental to libraries: short term popularity adding little to the community becomes irrelevant to the community welfare.

Libraries are successful when they bring about positive impacts: changes measured in skills, attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, status, or life condition. These changes can be seen for individuals and for organizations, including the community organizations and segments of the population as well. Many urban libraries have documented their economic value to their communities, raising literacy, educational levels, employment qualifications, small business development, and so on. There is a history in FCPL of programs supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and other foundation grants to test and demonstrate measurable outcomes. For example Changing Lives through Literature, which significantly reduced the recidivism rate for teenagers; library outreach to the elderly in congregate residences resulting in stronger community connections and participation; cooperative programs for residents of Ft. Belvoir which raised achievement levels at the base school so successfully that it that was deemed a model for transient school populations nationally.  For the past quarter century all federal grants and many private grants required outcome measures for the programs they supported.  In other library sectors as well, outcome measures are required. I can think of no library of excellence where outcomes are not the measure of the library’s success.

Instinctively the respondents to the recent community survey understood the value when they chose early literacy programs as a critical priority—the impact of those efforts is easily measurable and understood. It would be shortsighted to think that is the only, or even primary value, of a vibrant public library. It is not a free Red Box with some children’s resources! Project Outcome, a national program for field –driven outcome measurement launched in 2015 by the Public Library Association division of the American Library Association, identified seven core services to address for all public libraries: 

               Civic /Community Engagement
               Digital Inclusion
               Early Childhood Literacy
               Economic Development
               Education and Life Long Learning
               Job Skills
               Summer Reading

·        The structure of public libraries: A Partnership of  Board, Friends, Foundation, Director, Staff, County, Library Users

The public library traces its roots to the subscription library: a community bound together to support commonly shared resources.  Those roots are readily seen in many contemporary public libraries even today: the New York Public Library, for example, is the merger of three private subscription libraries, and though it receives substantial public funding, it remains a non-governmental body.  Because of these roots, the library is a community collaborative effort to ensure that both freedom of speech and freedom of the press are vibrant in our society.  Every oppressive government in the world crushes public libraries as one of its first priorities. The existence of the public library is not a trivial aspect to our democracy; it is vital to it.  Though we may take public libraries for granted, they share history with free press and speech – neither  existed as rights before established in our Constitution.

·        The Role of the Library Board of Trustees

 A citizen Library Board of Trustees (sometimes elected, sometimes, as in FCPL, appointed) is the governing body, establishing priorities, policies and selecting the chief administrator, the Library director.  In this sense, library boards are similar to school boards. Like school boards, library boards appoint directors/superintendents who are responsible for administration.

The strength and continuity of any public library rests on the strength and authority of its Board – it alone is directly responsible for establishing the policies and priorities of the Library.  To carry out its mission it must be visible, empowered through access to both internal and external information.  Participation in regional, state and national trustees organizations ensure that the Board can operate with knowledge of best practices, trends, and awareness of strategies’ successes and failures by other libraries. Direct public accessibility is also critical to its effectiveness.  The Board can set the ideal: the director, staff and Friends assist in achieving that ideal so far as is possible.  We have a powerful example of another Board acting in this way: the Fairfax County School Board. It is unflinching in its role of setting policies, goals and empowering the agents to achieve those goals, including strong private support, fiscal and material, at all levels down to the individual classroom.

One concrete actionable recommendation that I make to you as members of the Library Board is to review the Web page of FCPS ( ) as a model of accessibility: each member can be directly contacted easily. Although there is opportunity presently to post a message to the Library Board as a whole, there is not that channel to directly address a member by either district or committee.  You are the channel for concerns to all library users.

A second recommendation is that the Board have its own research/evaluation officer, independent from the Library Director.  Originally evaluations were carried out by library staff not reporting to the Director to assure lack of bias.  There was heavy reliance upon national survey and measurement methods.  However that office was moved to report to the Director, and although much of its work is meritorious, it ceased being anchored in national norms and focused increasingly in buttressing the Director’s agenda.  The recent community survey consultancy was an effort to break that connection, but having an on-going research arm directly reporting to the Board will assure not only impartiality but also continuity across directorships. One research project worth immediate consideration would be the impact of de-professionalization of staff and the effectiveness of the library.  Virtually every professional library position was reclassified into the management analyst series without such a study being undertaken and quite recently putting FCPL in the position of no interim director within the organization.

To be perfectly clear: the Board’s effectiveness is enhanced by diverse membership, not only representing districts, but interests and capabilities as well along with its accessibility. It is a long practice in the Commonwealth to welcome members of the profession to sit on library boards, from the State Library of Virginia (which has some active librarians as well among its members).  FCPL is especially fortunate to have active and retired librarians on the Board, serving graciously after distinguished careers.

·        Library users

The users of the library were originally called either subscribers or patrons, recognizing their financial support; to call them “customers” is demeaning.  Customers pick and choose products, pay for them, may or may not benefit, may or may not be impacted by these products, and ultimately contribute to the profitability of the seller.  Individuals and groups use the library to make a change in their lives.  They are readers, students, historians, writers, entrepreneurs, investors, poetry lovers, language learners ( not only English language learners, but many preparing for trips, jobs or assignments to other countries), career changers, genealogists --- seekers of information, the wisdom and enjoyment of the recorded word in all its forms at every junction of their lives. The “demographic market segmentation” strategy works for sales organizations, and other business applications, where there is direct correlation between age/gender/disposable income/age and buying patterns. Indeed that capability already resides in the County.  The “market segmentation” for the library rests in identifying the unmet needs of “neighborhoods of interest”, not location – Fairfax County was identified decades ago as an “edge city”, an urban county. Often originally serving geographical neighborhoods, churches, parks, theaters, galleries, shops, ball fields, the list goes on to include other entities, now expect participants based on interest as well. FCPL’s Virginia Room is also a case in point.

·        Staff

The professional librarian is a curious and wonderful part of this heady mix, responding to daily requests, enabling assisting staff to smooth the operations of organizing and moving resources.  After over 50 years of library service to libraries on three continents I can vouch for the universally collaborative nature of the profession, within their library and within the professional organizations.  When John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid turned their efforts to understanding how information is transferred in businesses, they found that social networks are critical in the process. Librarians know that –they listen, they share, they respond.  The first people to know community concerns are those on the front desk; those behind the desk capture and organize information relevant to those concerns so that they can be found and used; those in administration are the enablers of the process.  To break the flow of that network is to cripple it.

FCPL did become crippled.  Not because of “budget cuts”, but because the network was broken. There was a deliberate effort to discourage networking, both within and outside the organization.  De-professionalizing staff, the infamous “Beta Plan” failed to take into consideration that librarians not only provide operations and services, they are the eyes and ears for community needs and concern.  Participation in professional library associations was made difficult and frowned upon, making staff competency growth difficult.  Library licenses require only the degree without a continuing education update to maintain that license.  It is alone in that respect, and librarians have compensated by having participation in professional organizations, reading professional literature, and networking within local common interest groups serve that purpose. Minimally, healthy exchanges with the public libraries sharing reciprocity with FCPL would be expected: for decades the public libraries in the entire metropolitan area have shared their collections with each other’s users.  Exploring how that agreement can be more richly used during this time of tight budgets for all can only be beneficial.

·        Funding

Public libraries share the promise and challenge of all educational, cultural, and recreational bodies: huge missions and promise, and not enough resources.  There is no large American  public library of note existing on public funds alone: indeed, strong development offices, Foundations, Friends, public/private partnerships, and grants offices are critical to their success. The non-governmental funding allows strength unbound by the annual budget constraints of the tax-provided money.  Indeed, sometimes star successes are spurred by private funding coming with designations reflecting a community-identified special resource, program, or enhancement or a joint program with another educational or cultural organization.  The public funds at FCPL are decided annually, except for the buildings and their maintenance. Although this assures some level of day to day operations, it also makes multi-year efforts difficult or impossible.

Most public libraries are only beginning to realize that they are on the same trajectory as other cultural, educational and arts organizations – but on that trajectory they are.  Examples abound close to home: in the case of University of Virginia’s total budget, the state contributes less than 6% of its total budget; approximately 5% of National Public Radio comes from the federal, state, and local government funds; roughly 22% of George Mason University comes from the state. Both were founded as publicly funded institutions. The trend is clear – reliance upon private funding is increasing, and FCPL is no exception.  However, FCPL has never developed a long term vision and projected the resources for fulfilling that vision. Great visions span many years and involve participation of the entire community, eventually funding from many sources.  This is not a new unproven concept:  examples abound – among them is the San Diego Public Library, which worked 18 years to realize its goal of a revitalized library, a new central library with a charter school within its wall –yes, a school within a library rather than a library within a school! – re-routed public transportation to its doorstep, a magnet for neighborhood redevelopment,  enlarged services and resources largely through the vision of an energetic  board and council.  There are examples closer to home: A sister Northern Virginia public library has space adjoining a rep theater; another has a thriving MakerSpace; and yet a third has a strong business library serving both private and non-profit organizations.

·        Advocacy

Who are the library’s advocates?  We all are: readers, citizens, Friends, staff, Board, Director, elected officials, newspapers, publishers, teachers. . . .  Of course we are.  Advocacy, to crib another line, takes a village.  This is such a universally accepted norm that there is even an advocacy section of the American Library Association with rich and valuable resources to give to us.  No voice supporting FCPL should be silenced –how utterly un-American is that notion? Think of schools and universities, long giving voice to teachers/faculty, administrators, students, parent and community groups, businesses, and how effective that is in leading to the understanding that educational institutions are vital and integral to the success of the whole society.  Such is also true for public libraries. Coordinated advocacy is the best, of course, but every voice needs to be heard. It may be worthwhile for the Board to sponsor a session of ALA’s Advocacy University for all willing and interested.

FCPL is on the path to a new beginning.  It has some wonderful assets to make that beginning a good one:  And what does FCPL have to do that:  a remarkable professional staff, a new director filled with enthusiasm, an energized Board, steadfast Friends wanting  to get the word out and contribute in so many ways, volunteers every day keeping the library humming, a supportive County.  There is the makings to build a very good library.

I am a librarian, and so I often start making a point with saying, “There is a book….”  Thus I conclude with this thought from one of my favorite author/thinkers on information, John Seely Brown. In The Power of Pull, he states: “Small moves, smartly made can set big things in motion. Organizations can make large scale transformations, the type typically associated with large investments, by beginning to take action now through a series of smaller steps: Pragmatic Pathways. These steps are designed to help organizations accomplish more with less by circumventing political and financial obstacles, leverages disruptive technologies and building strong relationships in the broader ecosystem to share information and risk.  The goal is to help create transform the organization to be more fluid, constantly learning and adapting.”  Good words.  Good advice.

Over to you with good wishes and my support,
Vera Fessler
Vera Fessler

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