When the Free Library received a $25 million gift from the William Penn Foundation to help fund the redesign of five neighborhood libraries in 2014, it was the system’s chance to reshape branches to respond to community needs and create a better patron experience.

Transformed were the Tacony, Logan, Lillian Marrero, Lovett Memorial, and South Philadelphia Libraries, which all reopened by winter 2017. Each received a new layout, designated areas for teens and children, new books and materials, updated furniture, and increased accessibility for patrons with disabilities.

Visitors loved the updates so much that branch use increased via program attendance, in some cases by more than double.

The interior of the renovated Logan branch library in North Philadelphia features a living-room-like seating area and bright colors.
The interior of the renovated Logan branch library in North Philadelphia features a living-room-like seating area and bright colors.

That was among the findings in a nearly 200-page report released in May by the University of Chicago and Kimberly Bolan & Associates to document improvements in use and to guide future library renovations.

“We now know what we need to do better for the next upcoming renovations,” said Free Library president Siobhan A. Reardon. “It’s hard to go back, but let’s make sure we don’t make the same mistakes going forward.”

Library leaders, who commissioned the report as part of the $25 million grant, worked alongside researchers to inform the study. Over a year and a half, researchers conducted the evaluation through surveys, interviews, and focus groups with staff and patrons, observations of libraries, and data from the library’s strategic initiatives department.

The study suggests ways that the system could roll out similar renovations to other branches and remedy its ongoing facility emergencies problem while adjusting to meet the changing needs of patrons. Facilities throughout the 54-branch library system are struggling. Many face frequent emergencies including leaking roofs, plumbing issues, and broken HVAC. In 2018, the system had 396 building closures due to facility emergencies, causing a loss of 2,260 service hours, according to the Mayor’s Office.

Key Takeaways

Library use grew after renovations

All renovated libraries saw significant increases in average program attendance per month. Patrons thought the upgraded branches were bright, spacious, and inviting. They enjoyed the new meeting rooms, living rooms, and study rooms, as well as the increased number of computers, access to WiFi and power outlets. Eighty-three percent of surveyed patrons reported being “very happy” with the appearance inside renovated libraries.

Many customers were pleased with the new, diverse programs, ranging from outdoor events to cooking classes. Staff said the open floor concept allowed furniture to be moved easily so programs could accommodate more attendees.

Customers and staff said libraries were important gathering spaces for children, seniors, adults, and community organizations, and felt the renovations created opportunities for the branches to serve as communal gathering spaces.

Schoolchildren rush into the Tacony Library through the new glass addition. The branch is the most visited attraction on Torresdale Avenue.
Inga Saffron
Schoolchildren rush into the Tacony Library through the new glass addition. The branch is the most visited attraction on Torresdale Avenue.

Access in libraries improved

Renovated libraries were easier to enter, felt more secure, and had easier-to-reach shelving than before. Turnstiles were replaced with electronic gates that widened the entryway for people with disabilities. While the updated libraries were made ADA accessible, other branches did not provide “adequate” exterior and interior accessibility for users with mobility limitations.

Books and materials were reduced

New, slimmer stacks on wheels placed in the libraries reduced the amount of space for materials. Patrons noticed. While renovated branches were stocked with new DVDs, hardback books, CDs, and other materials, patrons and staff expressed concerns about the reduction in materials. The library intentionally reduced the nonfiction and reference collections in the 21st century libraries, the study said. “Great material, albeit it seems thin in terms of books,” wrote one surveyed patron. Another wrote, “Very disappointing to see how few books there are now.”

Analytics drove the decision, Reardon said: “The nonfiction collection takes up 60 percent of the space but only constitutes 16 percent of the overall circulation statistics, so we knew that there was room.”

Design challenges were illuminated

Some spaces designated for teens and children weren’t fully functional. Open floor concepts, combined with hard floors, led to noisy branches. Some furniture and finishing design choices led to quick wear and tear and increased building maintenance needs, including stained fabrics and chipped shelving. Staff said maintaining library spaces was more difficult after the renovation.

Expansion of similar renovations could be good for the system

The study recommended that future renovations involve staff in planning, prioritize longevity and low maintenance when selecting interior finishes, and develop systemwide standards to guide future modernization projects. It also recommended the library consider adding signage, redesigning service points, improving acoustical treatments, and further developing teen and children areas.