The Fairfax County Public Library, now a large system with 23 branches and a $25.8 million budget, got its start 75 years ago with just $250 from the Board of Supervisors.
While the towns located within the county had libraries as far back as 1897, Fairfax County residents weren’t able to convince the board to establish a countywide system until 1939.
“We have the Fairfax County Public Library because the citizens wanted it,” said Library Director Edwin “Sam” Clay III, something he said remains true today.
The $250 in initial county funds was supplemented with contributions from the Works Progress Administration, according to “Books and Beyond: The Fairfax County Library’s First 50 Years,” by local historian Nan Netherton, which allowed the new library system to launch a bookmobile service in 1940.
The books for the bookmobile were stored in a 24-square-foot cinderblock building with a garage behind the Fairfax courthouse, which was later expanded to become the first public library building. As the largely rural county began experiencing rapid population growth after World War II, the Library Board of Trustees began making plans to open branches in the more populated areas of the county.
The first library branches, funded by Friends groups, shared commercial or residential spaces. For example, the Thomas Jefferson Library started in the back of a barber shop, and then later moved to an apartment where books were stored in a bathtub, according to “Books and Beyond.”
The first public library bond referendum was in 1959, providing a new headquarters building and six branches, laying the foundation of the system as it exists today.
The 1980s and early 1990s was another period of expansion as the library worked to keep up with population growth.
“We added so many branches in that time,” said Laurie Manuse, a retired cataloger who still volunteers at the library.
“I remember one time that we were building two or three libraries at one time, and that was a huge amount of material to process,” she said. “We ran out of places to put the books and had them stacked on windowsills.”
That time period also brought a lot of changes to libraries with advancements in technology.
“The impact of the computer has revolutionized not what we do, but how we do it,” said Clay, who came to Fairfax in 1982.
At that time, the county’s book catalog was in a book itself. It was then converted to microfilm and then microfiche, for easier searching, said Betsy Keefe, who joined the library system as a librarian in 1978 and is now the cataloging services coordinator.
The first digital catalog was implemented in the early 1990s. Keefe said. The card index system that the catalogers had used for years was removed between 1989 and 1994.
One staff member was so attached that “we did have to remove it on a day she was not working,” Keefe said. “She laughs about it now.”
The modern library catalog is not only digitized, but online, making it more efficient for librarians and other library staff and improving services for patrons, Keefe said.
Customers can get up-to-the minute information about books that are on order for the system and place holds on new titles before they even arrive.
The catalog can also provide library users with much more detailed information about the books than systems could in the past.
“I think it’s just an amazingly wonderful improvement,” Keefe said.
As it marks its diamond anniversary with a series of themed events, the Fairfax County Public Library is also in the midst of a major effort to shape its future years.
After struggling through years of tight budgets, the library administration tried last year to test some staffing changes, which were halted after outcry from library staff and advocates.
Now, the Board of Trustees is launching a community survey to gather input about what county residents want from their libraries.
“The issue is maintaining the relevancy of the library,” Clay said. “My goal for the system is that you cannot imagine going a day without somehow interacting with the Fairfax County Public Library.”
Keefe said that, while there might be more digital books and different types of library services in the future, she thinks the public will continue to demand those services.
“I think people will always want material ... and they will also want the community feeling that the public library engenders,” she said.