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What’s the best way to run a public library in an era of widely available online information and shrinking government budgets? The Fairfax County Public Library system is working to figure that out.

The library is beta testing a streamlined staffing model at two branches starting this fall.

“The world has changed, libraries have changed, our customers have changed,” said library director Sam Clay.

While the library system is holding its own after being hit with big budget cuts during the recession, Clay said the current staffing model is not sustainable in the long term.

“We can no longer afford to maintain the staffing models that we have had in the past,” he said.

The new staffing model will be tested at the Reston Regional Library, the busiest branch in the system, and the Burke Centre Library.

Library staff currently fall into two main categories, information and circulation. With the growth of computer-assisted research and other changes in how people are using the library, Clay said the demands on the information desk have decreased.

The primary change in the beta tests will be to use dual trained staff members who fulfill both roles, thus reducing the number of people needed to run the library.

At Reston, this will reduce the staff size from 20.5 positions to 13.5 and Burke Centre will go from nine-and-a-half positions to seven.

The staff reductions can be accomplished without layoffs, Clay said, through natural attrition. About 42 percent of library employees are currently eligible for retirement, he said.

Clay does not expect that most patrons will notice the changes and, if they do, then the staffing plans will need to be revisited.

“We are very customer-driven,” he said. “The test for us is that they don’t feel something has been lost.”

Some librarians, however, are concerned that something will be lost with the changes. Several current and retired librarians have contacted the Fairfax County Times about their concerns, although none agreed to be interviewed.

“I have been appalled by so many changes to the staffing of one of the most valued and valuable resources that public funds can support,” one former librarian wrote.

Clay acknowledges the concerns among library staff and said administrators are holding meetings to discuss the proposed changes with employees.

“We’re going through significant change. Certainly there are some folks who are very concerned,” he said.

Another change that is unpopular with some employees is the removal of a requirement for a masters of library science for most positions. Clay said the job descriptions now state that the MLS is “preferred,” instead of “required,” to allow more flexibility in hiring.

“Are we saying the MLS is no longer important? No,” Clay said. For example, he added, “A branch manager is an incredibly difficult management job, more than it is a library job.”

The beta tests of the new staffing model are slated to last for six months, and the library administrators will be collecting extensive feedback from library patrons and employees along the way.

It will take three to five years to phase in more comprehensive changes, Clay said.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes,com