Reston Spring

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Comparative Mediocrity of the Fairfax County Public Library System, Terry Maynard, Reston 2020

For more than two years now, Reston 2020 and the Fairfax County Library Advocates have been pointing out the deterioration of the Fairfax Pubic Library system including declining budgets, staff, and materials.   We try here, using national data published by the American Library Association’s Public Library Data System, to show the people of the County how the County Library Administration, the Library Board of Trustees, and the Board of Supervisors have been driving the library system further downward into mediocrity and worse.   

Using the PLDS data, we have compared the FCPL system with all public library systems nationwide wide that are within a half-million people in population of Fairfax County’s 1.1 million population in FY 2012 (the latest year for which PLDS information is available).  We have also compared it to all the eight other area public library systems, many of which are in jurisdictions that have significantly smaller populations.  With the exception of Loudoun County, none of these area jurisdictions are as wealthy as Fairfax County.

The picture is not pretty and we all know that the budget cuts since FY 2012 will have made the comparison only worse.  As a general statement, we can say that, by most measures, the FCPL system (yellow highlighted line) is in the middle of the pack at best and usually below average compared with comparably populated jurisdictions.   In fact, it is noteworthy that Fairfax County spends 32% per capita LESS than bankrupt Detroit does on its library system.  Moreover, it is less committed to providing the resources and services expected of a public library system than ANY public library system in our area (see the green highlighted lines).  In fact, to make it easier for readers, we have included the key “average per capita” values for the entirety of the data set in the bottom row of the table.  

So where does FCPL “excel?”  The short answer:  Hardly any place.  

FCPL does have more e-books per capita than the average for jurisdictions of comparable population and every local area jurisdiction except Arlington County.  But we all know that e-books are much more expensive in the longer run than their hard print counterparts so, in a tight budgetary situation, there is little justification for the added expense for less material access.  And in this particular case, Fairfax County’s e-book collection is only about five percent of its total collection; nearly 2 million items in the collection are print materials.   Nonetheless, the FCPL continues to destroy more books than it buys in each fiscal year and spent less in FY 2012 on books per capita than all the comparably populated jurisdictions and all the local library systems except Rappahannock.  

The other good piece of news is that FCPL circulation per capita is nearly a quarter higher than the average of all the tracked jurisdictions although three of the eight other area library systems have equal or higher per capita circulation (Rappahannock’s library comes in at nearly three times the circulation per capita of FCPL).  This is almost certainly a reflection of the highly educated households that live here in Fairfax County.

Overall, however, the most important point is that FCPL ranks 36th out of the 67 jurisdictions we compiled data on in total expenditures per citizen—and lower than any other jurisdiction in the Washington area.  At $34.05 per capita, Fairfax library spending is only 81% of the spending per capita for all the systems in this data set and 64% of the average among the eight other library systems.   The shortfall in County library spending is highlighted by the low expenditure per capita it made on print materials, essentially books.  At $1.88 per capita in FY2012, it is 16% less than the average for all reported jurisdictions and fourth among the nine area jurisdictions.   It has almost certainly only gotten worse as the FCPL budget has declined in more recent years.  

No doubt as a result of the County’s declining investment in our public library system, the number of visits and borrowers per capita for the FCPL system is less than the average for all the covered jurisdictions.  It’s in the middle of the pack among regional library systems for visitors, but ahead of only two systems in our region in borrowers per capita (Prince Georges and Baltimore City).  Similarly, the number of borrowers per capita is well below average overall and below all the regional library systems except two (Rappahannock and Baltimore City). 

All in all, for a County that professes so much excellence in everything it does, its Board of Supervisors, its Library Trustees, and its Library Administration have turned our county public library into a model of mediocrity—and it’s getting worse with each passing year.


  1. I think it is time that the libraries were taken away from the county. How embarrassing to see the state that our libraries are currently in due to the mismanagement of the meager funds given to run them. I would like to see Kathy Kaplan elected as our new library director. How many of the rest of you agree with me? Go to your library and fill out the form they have for comments on the new director. You can also do that online. Write in Kaplan for Director.

  2. I don't have an MLS. The new library director will need a degree in library science. That's very important. The library director is not elected. He or she will be appointed by the Library Board of Trustees. Right now a selection committee is meeting and the survey is to help them. You can fill it out online from the library website:

    Kathy Kaplan


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