Eight-year Loudoun County Public Library Trustee and six-year chairman of the library’s Board of Trustees Mark Miller was recognized for his years of service by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
In July, Miller chaired his last Board of Trustees meeting before stepping down, having been term limited. During his tenure on the library, the agency opened the Gum Spring and Sterling libraries, along with the Brambleton Library years ahead of schedule.
Loudoun County Public Library Director Chang Liu credited Miller with negotiating an agreement with Brambleton’s developer to get that library open. Miller called it his “crowning achievement.”
It also was a time of change for the library, with its newest libraries in Sterling featuring 3D printers, makerspaces, recording studio, and other modern concepts.
Miller said the Gum Spring library served to illustrate that transition.
“We knew that libraries were more community-center type places than they were quiet book reading places, but we still wanted to give those people that wanted that old-style experience an opportunity,” Miller said.
So, the library system built a quiet room into the Gum Spring library where people could sit and read—and it went unused. The library system eventually repurposed it into the system’s first makerspace.
“That, I think, was one of the most dramatic shifts in how the community uses libraries, and it was telling that the first makerspace in Loudoun County when into the unused quiet reading room inside the library,” Miller said. “I think that was a catalyst for the things that we did going forward.”
Liu’s tenure has coincided closely with Miller’s, with Liu starting less than a year before Miller. And in that time, she said, the library has grown “tremendously.”
“We are very successful, as evidenced by the various awards that we have received on the national or state or local level,” Liu said. “And, also, just the usage—our usage has increased tremendously.”
Most recently, the library did away with fines for overdue books, making Loudoun one of the first suburban library systems to do so—a move that some city libraries have already made.
Miller said that began as a financial issue—although fines originally started in Loudoun about 10 years ago as a revenue source, Miller saw that while fines were capped at $5, the cost to replace books was more like $20.
“I looked at it and I said, wait second, I’d rather have the book than the five dollars,” Miller said.
But that conversation turned into one about serving the people who most need the library.
“It became more than just a financial issue,” Miller said. “It became an economic and a moral issue. I became of the strong belief that fines were limiting the ability of the library to reach the people it most needed to reach.”
Before, he worried, poorer families may avoid the library—unwilling, for example, to take the risk of letting their child check out a book and spill something on it.
He said while the Brambleton Library may have been his most visible mark on the system, doing away with library fines may be the longest-lasting.
“The Brambleton Library will one day not be a brand-new world-class library,” Miller said. “It’ll be a run-of-the-mill suburban library. But the fines elimination, as it continues to take hold through the country and the commonwealth, will be a lasting legacy, and we’ll be able to say we started that in Loudoun County. We’ll be the ones who showed the rest of the state how to lead, and how to achieve great things.”
That happened under the direction of the Board of Trustees, which sets all policy for the library system and oversees its budget.
“Generally speaking about any of the trustees, I appreciate their volunteering their time to serve in the Loudoun County Public Library system, because they’re not paid at all,” Liu said. “They are true volunteers. As staff we appreciate that.”
At a brief ceremony at the Board of Supervisors, Miller encouraged others to volunteer, saying he was always treated with respect and had the opportunity to make a difference managing the library’s $21 million budget.
“If you want to volunteer, if you want to be a part of things, you want to make a difference, this is the county you can do it in,” Miller said.
During his time on the board, Miller won the Virginia Library Association Trustee Library Award in 2016 and the American Library Association Trustee Citation in 2017.
Miller has left his mark on the county in more ways than that. He has also served on the Loudoun County Fiscal Impact Committee, the Loudoun County Housing Advisory Board, the Loudoun County Complete Count Committee, and the Board of the Friends of Ashburn Library.
And perhaps most famously, he and his wife Ellyn also founded the Smashing Walnuts Foundation, which is today a fund of The Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties. Their daughter, Gabriella, died at the age of 10, suffering from Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma—an inoperable, incurable type of brain tumor on the brain stem.
After her death, the Millers donated her tumor to a scientist studying the condition the further that research.
Gabriella’s tumor was the size of a walnut, and the Millers began literally smashing walnuts to help their daughter visualize crushing her tumor. They founded Smashing Walnuts before her death, dedicated to finding cures for childhood brain cancers.