McPherson Square Library has always been more than a library in Kensington.
It’s a safe space in a neighborhood with few of them, where kids learn on computers they don’t have at home and eat lunches they might not otherwise get. A hub where parents log on for job searches. A lifesaving place where librarians carrying Narcan regularly rush out to the lawn to save people overdosing on opioids.
That’s because twice last week, the McPherson branch was broken into, said Judi Moore, the branch manager.
Library staff and police estimate between $8,000 and $10,000 worth of resources were stolen — a hard loss for almost any site in the historically strapped 54-branch Free Library of Philadelphia.
But the break-ins dealt an especially cruel blow to McPherson, which serves a community that has borne the brunt of almost every city crisis — from gun violence to deep poverty to opioids. They come at a time critical services have grown scarcer in a neighborhood where the average income per capita is less than $13,000, and where so many suffer from hunger and unemployment, addiction, or a lack of housing and health care.
But the loss isn’t just financial. It’s emotional.
“We try to be a safe place for the kids. We try to give them good experiences,” said Moore, who has been at the branch for 31 years. “We’re going to have to start over from scratch.”
The burglaries came two weeks after the looting that rocked the neighborhood in the aftermath of protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
A security guard on June 15 discovered the alarm had been cut and the library had been plundered. The thief or thieves — police have made no arrests — left some things bagged up at the circulation desk, in totes used to shuttle books between branches, either because they got scared off or just couldn’t carry it all. Maintenance changed the locks.
But that night the library was burglarized a second time. The thieves apparently broke in from a second-floor window.
Six iPads that had been collected for children’s games and reading were taken. Three laptops were also gone. Two PlayStations the kids used for “Just Dance” competitions. A Nintendo Wii for sports games, like bowling and tennis. Games and controllers. A speaker system and projector for movie days. A digital camera for photography club.
But smaller things, too — the type of makeshift supplies staff had scraped together to provide programming and activities at the long cash-strapped library: An aquarium used as a display case for summer reading prizes. An iron for fusing jewelry beads together. A toy model Ferris wheel and UNO cards. Glitter.
The arts and crafts closet was emptied. Stolen, too, was the library’s supply of personal protective equipment — and toilet paper.
They took the library’s reserve of Narcan, the overdose antidote the staff has used to save almost 30 people over three years.
“It’s breaking my heart,” said Haydeelin Martinez, a Kensington resident and member of a group that supports the library. “It’s one of the few places in the community we have to look for resources. It’s such an important place for the people living here.”
With an annual budget of just $450 for adult and teen programming, McPherson librarians had long relied heavily on small donations and dollar-store finds for their program materials and children’s snacks.
It was after librarians took it upon themselves to learn how to administer Narcan so they could help the growing community of people in addiction that donations started to make a difference.
They could afford actual T-shirts and teddy bears to design during art classes, and terrarium kits for the kids to grow houseplants. They started acting classes for teens and parenting classes for adults.
In a neighborhood where home computers and digital access can be limited — and in a library with only six computers — the iPads and laptops proved essential.
“The kids were so careful with the iPads,” Moore said. “They didn’t keep them lying around. They knew they were special and couldn’t easily be replaced.”
Now, McPherson is looking to rebuild during a pandemic that has left families hurting more than ever — and the crowds once again filling the lawn. They are starting with a park cleanup on Friday morning. Moore plans on reaching out to the Free Library’s donor base, hopeful that small donors may also want to help.