Colin Mills: Story Is Not Over For Libraries

Colin Mills/File photoReal life doesn’t work like it does in the movies. We all know this is true for a lot of reasons. But one in particular is especially challenging: Storylines don’t resolve into neat and tidy endings.  That’s one of the aspects of movies that we love, and it’s easy to see why. The leading man proposes to his beloved, or the underdog wins the big game, or the hero finally defeats the villain, and then… roll credits.  Story over.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life worked the same way? Alas, life insists that we keep going, even after the “happy ending.” Can the romantic couple deal with the day-to-day nature of married life? Will the lovable underdog play well again next season, under the burden of higher expectations? Can the hero help the city rebuild after the climactic battle, or defeat the next bad guy that shows up? Movies rarely address those questions, but they’re what real life is all about.

This challenge is particularly acute in politics, especially at the more local levels. Most people don’t follow the ins and outs of local and state politics; there’s too much else going on in their lives. They generally start paying attention when something big happens, something that’s perceived as a real benefit or a real threat.

When those potential threats or benefits arise, it’s easy to get people paying attention. Those moments are tremendous and inspiring. But they only right before a big event: a crucial vote, an important hearing, a major decision.

The good news is that when people show up and make their voices heard, our elected officials tend to listen.  The problem is that once that key vote or hearing occurs, most people treat it like the climax of a movie.  That’s it; story’s over. Time to roll the credits and go home.

But politics is all about the long struggle. Getting hundreds of people in a room for one meeting is impressive, but politicians know that a few months later, most of those people won’t remain engaged, and may not even remember the issue. That’s why delays are so common in the political process; citizens have short attention spans, and often, even widespread grassroots outrage fades away given enough time.

That’s why, if an issue is important to you, it’s vital to stay engaged. You can’t assume the battle is won after the big vote or the big meeting; you need to keep showing up, keep speaking out, and keep the pressure on our leaders to do the right thing.

The battle over the future of our libraries is a perfect example. Many of us were deeply upset when we learned about the proposed “Beta Plan,” which proposed dramatically reducing and de-professionalizing library staff, as well as the major culling of books in recent years. Widespread outrage over the Beta Plan and book trashing spread like wildfire over the course of last summer.

The public outcry climaxed at the Library Board of Trustees meeting last September. An overflow crowd of hundreds showed up to express their love for the libraries, and the Board voted unanimously to suspend the Beta Plan and book culling indefinitely.

That September meeting was a terrific feel-good event. Both audience members and Trustees spoke eloquently about the importance of the library system. We got exactly the result we were looking for. If you were writing a movie about the library saga, this is the scene you’d end on. Roll credits!

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  The Chairman of the Board of Trustees said as much that night; he mentioned his hope that he’d see every one of us at the County budget hearings in April, showing support for increased library funding. He noted that most years, he was the only one present to support the libraries. It’s likely no coincidence that library funding as a share of the County budget declined sharply the last few years; it’s easier to cut things that no one speaks up about. (Happily, the 2015 budget includes a modest increase in library funding, thanks to the public pressure.)

The story continued in another important way after the September library meeting. At that meeting, the Trustees created an ad hoc Communication and Evaluation Committee. That committee was charged with collecting public input, considering the future direction of the library system, and coming up with, essentially, an alternative to the Beta Plan.

That committee has been fairly quiet in the months since, but they are now planning to hold a public meeting to collect input. This meeting is coming up soon – Tuesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. – and it’s right nearby, at the Oakton Library.  To the best of our knowledge, this is the only public meeting that the committee intends to hold.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that we’ll see a repeat of the impressive turnout that occurred last September.  For too many people, the library battle is over and “won.” The library system hasn’t been in the news much in recent months, and most people have turned their attention back to other issues and to their daily.

If you care about the future of our library system, and if you think the Beta Plan is the wrong direction for the future, you need to be at this meeting. The committee needs to see the same enthusiasm and passion for our libraries that we showed last September. They need to know that Fairfax County residents expect first-class libraries, and that we want to see them properly staffed, stocked, and funded.

In life, unlike in the movies, there are no final victories.  Rather, it’s a continuing process.  If you walk away once you think you’ve “won,” you risk seeing your victory overturned behind your back.  The battle for the future of our libraries isn’t over; we still need your support.  I hope to see you at Oakton Library on June 3.  I hope that we can show that we have a lasting commitment to our libraries.

Interested in Reston’s future?  Run for the RCA Board!  The deadline for candidates to file is Friday, so click here to download the form today!

Colin Mills is the president of the Reston Citizens Association. He writes weekly on Reston Now.

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