By Charles Keener
In Fairfax County, Public Library Friends are groups of volunteers who raise funds for or provide other support to their specific library branch as well as to the library system as a whole.
Collectively, library Friends donate hundreds of thousands of dollars and many thousands of volunteer hours every year to Fairfax County Public Library.
Yet, in the coming weeks, Fairfax County plans to evict some of these very same library Friends groups from the library branches they have served faithfully for decades.
The County demands that all library Friends sign a new contract which many of us feel violates our consciences, goes against the advice of our legal counsel, and tramples our rights as legally recognized independent non profit organizations.
Library Friends work with the County.
Library Friends do not work for the County.
But the County is determined to ram through a new “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) contract which would put the library Friends in an inferior or subservient position.
The County will claim that library Friends were a party to the writing of the MOU and participated throughout the process. The fact is that the process was never one of equal partners working toward a mutually agreeable result. Instead, it was a one sided, top down process in which library Friends were dictated to and then had to fight to remove language we objected to. All of the original wording came from the County — none from the Friends. Friends were only able to be reactors — not originators.
The end result is better than the total horror of a document which was first proposed but many Friends were not yet satisfied with some aspects of the MOU when a divided Library Board unilaterally approved it in January.
The MOU then became set in stone, with no further revisions to be considered.
This was so even though many Friends still had concerns about specific sections and flagged those concerns to the County repeatedly — asking for further negotiation and further revision so that both parties felt satisfied and comfortable.
For months, several Friends groups have asked to discuss reasonable changes/modifications to the MOU that would make it more fair to Friends. But every request for or suggestion of additional revisions was completely rejected ignored by the County.
The County — represented by library Director Jessica Hudson and library Board Chair Miriam Smolen — has been completely unwilling to consider Friends’ concerns or make any changes to the MOU version that was approved by the Library Board.
Instead, library Friends are being bullied and threatened with eviction if we do not sign a contract we are not comfortable with. Library Friends have been told we must sign away our rights or be thrown out.
Such a “my way or the highway” approach is unbelievable—being directed at volunteers who have served their various library branches for decades and donated millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours to support library collections, facilities, programs, staff support, grounds and other needs.
This entire process has been incredibly toxic, corrosive, and divisive. Library Friends have felt abused by the coercive, threatening, bullying approach Fairfax County has taken. Trust has been eroded, respect lost, and any sense of community or partnership shattered.
Many of the Friends groups who ultimately signed have deeply disliked both the MOU as written and the entire the process. Some have even signed officially as having done so “under duress.”
This dreadful process has also fostered divisions among members of library Friends groups and has driven several active Friends members to resign entirely.
This has truly been a bitter and poisonous pill the library Friends are being forced to swallow.
Basically, Friends are being given a choice between 1) violating our consciences and signing, or 2) losing the opportunity to do the volunteer work we have been devoted to for many years—a very cruel choice indeed.
And all this is being done to people who have done nothing but give of our time and effort to be of service and to support the library. That irony is very hard for many Friends to understand.
It is not too late for the County to reconsider this wholly destructive and counterproductive approach and to start treating the library Friends as valued partners instead of problems needing to be crushed and brought to heel. But from all we have seen, there is little hope Fairfax County leaders have any interest in reconciliation or a mutually respectful relationship.
Charles Keener is a board member of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, member of the Fairfax Library Advocates and recent retiree after 43 years with Fairfax County Public Library.