Weeks before the November release of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, South Philadelphia resident Carol Pasquarello rushed to throw her name on the Free Library’s book reserve list.
As of Friday, Pasquarello was still waiting to get one of the library’s 128 copies of the print edition — along with more than 600 other Philadelphians. More than 1,500 were waiting to borrow the e-book.
Pasquarello said she’s waited weeks and months for books, DVDs, and tax forms from the library. It took her more than three months, she said, to get copies of Bob Woodward’s and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s new titles.
“It’s very frustrating,” Pasquarello said. “Because of the funding issues, [library administrators] don’t purchase enough of these books to accommodate the patrons, so you really do have to settle down, go out and buy the book, and shell out $30. Or, put your name on a waiting list.”
Years ago, the library system may have simply bought additional copies of highly demanded items. But that changed a decade ago when – faced with millions in cuts to its overall budget — library administrators began shifting resources for books and materials to other areas of its budget to save jobs.
A state mandate calls for the city’s library system to spend at least 12 percent of its annual operating budget, currently around $48 million, on collection expenditures – including books, materials, and special collections. But since 2010, the 54-branch system has fallen below that threshold — sometimes by more than $1 million, according to a review of Free Library budgets — severely depleting its collections and creating long waits for books and materials for thousands of patrons.
Currently, there are more than 38,000 holds on physical materials and nearly 82,000 holds on e-books and digital audiobooks.
The dwindling collection is one of the impacts of a steady drop in funds over the last decade that in recent months became the catalyst for a grassroots campaign by supporters and advocates of the city’s system.
Last fall, hundreds of city residents, library staff, and advocates crowded into the fourth floor of City Hall to rally for Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to restore library funding to 2008 levels. Advocates, organizing under the hashtag “#FundOurLibraries,” delivered petitions with more than 5,000 signatures to the offices of Kenney and each City Council member, while demanding money to restore staffing, and at least six-day service across the system.
Kenney’s office pledged his administration would explore the budgetary needs of all departments but said it also remains "focused on ways to improve our staffing patterns and management systems to be as efficient and accessible to the public as possible with existing resources.”
Advocates analyzed the library budget and maintain that the library system is “critically underfunded” and never recovered from a massive budget slash in 2008. Friends of the Free Library will continue to hold events across the city to advocate for additional funds, leading up to the next budget season.
When the materials budget dropped in 2010 from $8.5 million to $4.8 million, the downsizing of collections was “huge,” said Free Library president Siobhan Reardon.
“It was a 50 percent cut to the collections, absolutely,” said Reardon, who took over the system in 2008. “And that decision was to save jobs. ... Unfortunately, it’s jobs or it’s collections.”
Reardon said library administrators “ended up prioritizing where … to spend our library’s materials budget, and where the communities are really looking to get at materials.”
The nonfiction collection and reference materials that could be found online were hit the hardest, she said. Administrators worked to safeguard children’s materials, however, to stay in line with the early-learning component of the library’s strategic plan.
Adam Feldman, a librarian and Local 2187 Executive Board member, said the system’s need to respond to a staffing crisis also contributed to the draining of the materials budget. And the impact is obvious.
“One complaint we hear [from patrons] is that these newly reopened libraries don’t often have the collections that the neighborhood sometimes expects them to have," he said. “They don’t have as much on the shelf as they’d like.”
On paper at least, inadequately stocked shelves could have repercussions. State aid makes up a decent chunk of the library system’s funding — $8.2 million of its nearly $49 million budget last year — and the state mandates that the system spend at least 12 percent of its operating budget "on collections, excluding costs of an unusual, emergency or nonrecurring nature.”
For Philadelphia, that often means more than $5 million a year; in 2017, the system spent only about $4.5 million on collections.
Failure to meet state standards for spending on materials could result in a partial or complete loss in state aid — although state officials acknowledge no library has ever had to be punished for falling short.
Libraries that can’t reach the requirement can annually apply for a waiver of standards that allows systems to fall below the mandate without repercussions.
Reardon said the library applies for the waiver each year, but the state has no record of such a filing by the Free Library since 2014, the last time a waiver was granted. The same year, there were 62 waiver requests from libraries around the state. Only six were requests to waive the expected collection expenditures.
“I believe that most libraries work really hard to meet this mandate as it can influence their ability to receive state aid,” said Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association. “Small independent libraries tend to have the most struggles.”
And patrons bear the brunt: With a significantly low materials budget, materials and books may be out of date, or simply not available, Buker said.
Frustrated with a lack of books, patrons may stop using the library services, or instead opt to buy their own, if they have the means. If they don’t, they may be forced to wait.
About a month ago, Philadelphian Judith Everitt said she joined the hold list for a cookbook seen on many “Best of the Year” lists.
“I still have a little ways to go, because there’s only one copy,” said Everitt, a Center City resident who frequents the Philadelphia City Institute near Rittenhouse Square. “What just strikes me is it’s a big city and a book that they know will be really popular, sometimes there’s just like five of them.”
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.