Classics in No Danger at Fairfax County Public Library

First, an apology. When I last wrote about the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post stories on the Fairfax County Public Library, I had not read the full Washington Post story. My hasty Googling turned up only the table of 22 eliminated titles. (Also, I neglected to credit Pejman Yousefzadeh for originally flagging the story.)

Some excerpts from the full Washington Post story, which ran on Page 1:

Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region’s largest library system is taking turnover to a new level. …

As Fairfax bets its future on a retail model, some librarians say that the public library may be straying too far from its traditional role as an archive of literature and history.

Nevertheless, I was curious about the classic literature (Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Lee! Aristotle!) being “dumped.” No one checked out To Kill a Mockingbird for two years? So I emailed Sam Clay, director of the Fairfax County Public Library system, and subsequently discussed the articles with him on the telephone. I also traded emails with Doug Miller of the library’s Office of Planning and Evaluation.

Like all libraries, Fairfax County “weeds” its collection of slow-moving or damaged volumes, and has always done so. It is capacity constrained and, to some extent, has to make room for new books by removing others. Also, unlike most metropolitan library systems, it does not have a main location; instead, it consists of 8 regional libraries (originally research-oriented) and 12 community libraries (originally family- and socially-oriented), as well as an accessibility center for the disabled. Interbranch lending is available with 2-3 day lead time.

As Lisa Rein wrote in the Washington Post, Fairfax County is on the leading edge of “collection management” (Mr. Clay’s term). Its collection is worth some $250 million and contains 3.1 million items. “We want to manage it wisely,” says Mr. Clay, “by buying smart and maintaining a collection with integrity.”

According to the library’s F2007 budget, funds for new material acquisition have fallen 31% since 2002 (Mr. Clay confirmed that this is a dollar-on-dollar reduction). However, after several years of moderate declines, total circulation began increasing in F2006 and is expected to increase 7% in F2007 (the fiscal year ends in June). The circulation turnaround coincided roughly with the introduction of the SirsiDynix circulation tracking software, which permits Fairfax County to identify candidates for withdrawal objectively and systematically.

In fact, the library is running “like a business” – key metrics are tracked with IT and reported monthly; managers are responsible for hitting performance targets but retain control of decisions. By contrast, according to the Washington Post, the District of Columbia’s library doesn’t track circulation as closely and is “struggling to increase circulation.” What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.

The 22 household names listed as discarded or at risk by the Washington Post are in no danger. Actually, individual branches have removed single copies of these books. There are 359 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird in the Fairfax County system, including 80 at the Reston Regional Library. One copy did not circulate – why? Because it was stolen. (The software only flags volumes that haven’t circulated; the final decision to withdraw or replace a volume is up to the branch manager.)

In short, Fairfax County (and SirsiDynix) is innovating to fulfill its mission with limited resources by trading low-velocity titles for higher-velocity ones, including the best-sellers despised by National Review‘s John Miller, writing in The Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Rein and Mr. Miller raise two objections to this business model evolution at Fairfax County:

First, Fairfax County is not hewing to the classic library mission of archiving all information, preserving cultural heritage, and curating a literary canon.

[I]n the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah’s Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were. … That leaves some books endangered.

This is not persuasive. Retail channels for every product are highly segmented. For example, moviegoers can watch films at a multiplex or arthouse theater or at home on purchased or rented DVDs, Netflix, or cable TV. Multiplexes do not show obscure East European art films; that’s what the arthouse is for. Blockbuster doesn’t stock those films and HBO doesn’t show them; that’s what Netflix is for. The role that Ms. Rein and Mr. Miller champion is filled admirably by university libraries,, and (increasingly) Google Print and Open Content Alliance. Fairfax County Library is serving a different purpose for a different customer segment. There’s no reason that all libraries should perform the same function – indeed, this would be wasteful.

Second, by providing “new page-turner[s] by John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson,” Fairfax County is a “welfare [program] for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille’s newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.”

On the contrary, a library that insisted on stocking those “dusty tomes” that circulate once in 5 years would be acting as a “welfare program” for whatever narrow demographic reads obscure Victorian novels or Polish science fiction (that would be me). Let those readers take advantage of the undeniable improvements in the book market that Mr. Miller notes. 15 years ago, the library was the only source for obscure titles. Today, Amazon and ABEbooks have far greater selection.

Many of the high-demand new releases that Mr. Miller has in mind are found in Fairfax County’s “Hot Picks” section, a prominent display with extra copies and shorter lending periods (14 days instead of 21). Hot Picks titles are driven (at least in part) directly by customer demand: extra copies of the most-reserved titles are ordered automatically. Borrowers of these books just don’t want to pay retail? Neither does Fairfax County: the extra copies are leased. Why shouldn’t libraries add a few copies of P.D. James’s 1992 novel when a Hollywood adaptation spikes demand?

Let community libraries serve the masses. For Mr. Clay, the proof is growing circulation: evidence of satisfied and engaged customers. “People use the library. That tells us we’re doing something right.”

UPDATE: Welcome to Zeal and Activity.  Have a look around – start with Is News Puzzling or Mysterious? or Better Search for Long Tail of Books – or stop by on Friday for our weekly feature, Friday Mystery Author.  Thank you for coming by.



  • Captain’s Quarters: “It seems to me that a public library has a different mission than a retail book store, and that is to maintain a compendium of the literary legacy of our culture.”
  • Pejman Yousefzadeh: “If I want to read Baldacci–shudder–I can find his works online or in stores. When I want to read Proust, I should at least have the option of a library open to me…”
  • Christina Pikas: “Weeding, variously called ‘pruning’, de-selection, de-accessioning, collection management, is a vital part of maintaining a healthy, vibrant, welcoming library collection.”
  • UPDATE: There are a collection of reactions from the library science blogosphere at the Carnival of the Infosciences 62.

2 Responses to “Classics in No Danger at Fairfax County Public Library”

  1. Illustrated Fiction » Even I Can Be Fooled… Says:

    […] long blogpost from Zeal and Activity nails down the real facts behind what appears to be a non-story elevated to a level by me and […]

  2. Health and Medicine Forum Says:

    All of the novels of John Grisham are very good, i love all the stories ,~-

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