By Angela Woolsey/Fairfax County Times
February 21, 2020
It takes a chart to understand the operating hours for the Fairfax County Public Library system.
A graphic on the county’s website indicates that the eight regional branches are open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, but only until 6:00 p.m. on Fridays and 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays with Sunday hours from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.
The county’s 14 community libraries share the same hours as their larger regional counterparts, except they are closed on Sundays and only operate from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Wednesdays and 1:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays.
Even Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees chair Miriam Smolen admits that she once went to a community branch only to find an empty parking lot, which made her realize that it was Sunday and the library was closed.
Hoping to end the confusion, Smolen and other advocates for the library have started a campaign to convince Fairfax County to devote more money to its library system so that it can offer longer, more consistent operating hours and add more materials to its collections.
The Coalition to Expand Library Access formally launched its “It’s About Time” campaign with an information meeting for community groups on Feb. 6 at the George Mason Regional Library in Annandale.
“The need of our population to be able to access not just books and materials, but the resources of the library staff, the meeting rooms, the technology labs is overwhelming,” Smolen said. “We think that this effort – for not a lot of money – will have [a] tremendous impact on readers, on students, on clubs, on groups that want to meet, on English language learners.”
The coalition wants Fairfax County to increase the library system’s budget by about $3.3 million total over three years to extend Sunday service to all 22 full-service branches, establish uniform operating hours, and enhance collections with books and other materials.
Based on a plan proposed by FCPL director Jessica Hudson, the funds would cover additional operating costs and staff needed to support the expanded hours as well as new materials.
Smolen says the FCPL Board of Trustees, the Friends groups associated with different library branches, and other library supporters have wanted increased funding from Fairfax County for a while.
As recently as 2000, Fairfax County libraries opened for 59 hours a week at community branches and 65 hours at regional branches, but budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008 forced the system to reduce hours and limited its ability to purchase books and other resources.
Now, the county’s libraries average 56 hours of operation per week, even though the population that they serve has grown by approximately 200,000 people over the past two decades, according to estimates in the annual demographic report that Fairfax County published in December.
While the irregular, constrained hours are just an inconvenience for some, they pose legitimate access issues for students, older adults, low-income residents, and other individuals who lack reliable transportation and depend on their local library for books, internet, and other services, the Coalition for Expanded Library Access argues.
“Expanded hours allow for students and the community as a whole to have access to resources,” Fairfax Library Foundation executive director Lisa Bryant said. “…They have the ability to just really immerse themselves in community interaction, being able to see neighbors or individuals from other parts of the county, and so, it enables individuals to have just another beautiful space to go and to expand their capacity.”
A nonprofit that supports Fairfax County Public Library by soliciting private funding, the Fairfax Library Foundation is a member of the coalition, along with the board of trustees, the Friends of Oakton Library, Friends of the Reston Regional Library, the Friends of the Sherwood Regional Library, and the Friends of the Burke Centre Library.
The Friends groups support individual libraries by assisting and promoting library activities, such as used book sales, to their local communities.
As the body responsible for setting library policies and serving as a liaison for the library system to elected officials, the FCPL Board of Trustees asked Hudson to develop a funding plan and timeline for expanding library hours and collections about two years ago.
The trustees presented Hudson’s proposal to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in a joint meeting last year.
While the supervisors all expressed support for the plan, funding was not included in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. The request instead went into a budget guidance that the board of supervisors gives to the Fairfax County Department of Management and Budget for consideration during the next budget cycle, according to Smolen.
“They put in there their support for this concept of expanded, consistent hours,” Smolen said. “We, both the library board of trustees and the whole coalition, wants to express our thanks and support for the work that the board of supervisors has already done to help move this effort forward.”
County Executive Bryan Hill is scheduled to the FY 2021 advertised budget to the county board on Feb. 25.
The Coalition for Expanded Library Access emerged from an ad hoc committee put together by the board of trustees to advocate for its expanded-hours proposal.
The committee consists of trustees, leaders of the Fairfax Library Foundation, and leaders of the friends’ groups from the Reston, Oakton, and Sherwood libraries.
Under the proposed plan, Fairfax County’s 22 full-service libraries would be open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. for the rest of the week, bringing the system up to 65 hours of service per week.
With an anticipated start date of July 1, the expansion would unfold in phases over three years with the first year encompassing all eight regional libraries as well as Patrick Henry, Kings Park, and Kingstowne libraries, which are the three busiest community libraries.
The coalition says that for the second phase, a process would be established to determine which community libraries get Sunday hours in FY 2022, which starts on July 1, 2021, based on usage levels, community need, the library renovation cycle, and other factors.
The libraries not included in the first two years would get Sunday hours starting in July 2022.
When fully implemented, the plan will increase funding for the Fairfax County Public Library by $3.3 million annually, which would still make the system’s budget less than 1 percent of Fairfax County’s total general fund allocation.
The public library system cost Fairfax County $28.6 million in FY 2020, when it carried about $30.3 million in expenditures and brought in $1.6 million, according to the current adopted budget.
While its initial request for FY 2021 is only around $800,000, the Coalition to Expand Library Access hopes to raise community awareness of its goals and build a broad base of public support as it makes the case for additional funding to the board of supervisors.
The coalition is encouraging interested individuals and organizations to sign up for its mailing list at celafairfax.org and contact their district supervisor to share their thoughts about the importance of public libraries and how they might benefit from expanded hours.
Given that Fairfax County Public Library receives 4.6 million annual visitors, including more than 400,000 card-holders and 273,728 event attendees, Smolen believes the coalition should be able to attract a wide range of support.
“The library’s a resource, really, across the county, across ages, across economic groups…for groups that have all sorts of different agendas,” Smolen said, arguing that supporting the public library system would help the county meet its commitment to social and racial equity as laid out in the One Fairfax policy adopted by the board of supervisors in 2017.
Expanded hours would be a huge boon for the Oakton Library, according to Lauren Crum, who previously served as president of the Oakton Friends group and is now a coalition member.
The Oakton Library becomes so crowded, particularly with students, on Saturdays and even on weekday evenings that there are generally no spare tables or chairs, and the meeting rooms are often completely booked, Crum says.
Adding Sunday service would enable the library to accommodate more people. Crum also thinks it is important that the coalition is advocating for more robust collections for county libraries.
“[Libraries are] one of the few places now where a community can gather. At our library, we've got a very active community,” Crum said. “There’s no other place like it within a 15-mile radius where you can pull together a meeting. You can get your information…I just think it’s a great gathering place.”