Kelly Richards’ first library was his childhood home: a small Cape Cod on the north side of Flint, Mich., where he grew up with as many as 15 family members. It was a house packed with both people and books.
At night, Richards’ father, a tradesman, studied engineering at a drafting table in the basement where his mother also ran a hair salon. His older brothers worked the morning newspaper route and returned with arms full of comic books, introducing Richards to heroes like the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four.
“We were the only family in our neighborhood when I was a child that had the encyclopedia,” Richards said. “Everybody from two or three blocks away would come to use our encyclopedia. We had not only the big set, but the smaller volumes, too.”
It’s a fitting origin story for the new director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, who started this month after six years at the Muskegon Area District Library in Michigan, but the challenges ahead are formidable.
Philadelphia’s network of 54 libraries is at a crossroads. Richards, 56, takes over a library system that has been roiled by decades of budget cuts, staff losses, branch closures, and, more recently, allegations of racial discrimination that ended with the resignation of his predecessor.
Holding a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Richards began his career as a police officer in Flint and later Las Vegas, where he eventually changed course and took a post as a youth program director. It was there, surrounded by books and children, where he felt he could finally enact change. He was later recruited to the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a master’s degree in library and information science.
“From a young age I had that spark to want to help people better their lives,” Richards said. “But police work was always action, stop, go,” he said. “I never had time to build a relationship with people.”
Richards moved to Philadelphia earlier this month, ending not only a six-year chapter as the director of the Muskegon Area District Library but as the president of the Michigan Library Association.
In Muskegon, a port city of roughly 37,000 people on Lake Michigan, voters approved a tax increase in 2016 that boosted funding to the city’s 10 libraries. The levy allowed Richards to rehire staff, improve facilities, and add new services, like a mobile book van to reach underserved parts of the city.
Richards chalked up the transformational victory to selling voters and elected officials on the critical need for libraries.
“We really worked hard to go to our municipal meetings, to report to them what the library is doing and what it’s serving in those communities,” he said. “We started having regular meetings with the mayors and supervisors.”
For Philadelphia’s library system — more than five times the size of Muskegon’s — a pot of gold is unlikely to appear in Richards’ first years on the job.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s latest city budget restored the library’s annual funding to $42.6 million a year after cutting it due to the pandemic. Still, library advocates say resources remain a shadow of what they once were.
Decades of austerity cuts have left the library battered. Former Mayor Michael Nutter notoriously pushed to shutter 11 branches in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Facilities today are in dire need of renovations, and the library system has also lost more than a third of its staff in that time, thinning from 1,100 employees in 2009 to just over 700 this year, according to city payroll data.
The pandemic has dealt additional blows to service levels. In 2019, it was a milestone when libraries expanded to six-day service for the first time in years. Today, while 50 of the libraries have reopened for the first time since the pandemic began, none of the buildings offer service six days a week, and hours remain limited.
Since his start date on Jan. 14, Richards said he has spent two weeks touring libraries and hearing concerns of staff and library users. The most common items on the wish list: more staffing, longer hours, and technological and infrastructural improvements for facilities — all of which require money.
How will he look to increase funding and how long would it take to restore six-day service citywide? “I wish I could answer that question,” he said, “but I’m still too new.”
His initial staff meetings have also focused on the fallout over the library’s recent racial turmoil — which was “no secret across the library community” nationwide, Richards said. His predecessor, Siobhan Reardon, resigned in July 2020 over allegations of racial discrimination at the library, and Richards’ appointment came after a long search process that sought to restore faith in the library system.
“Financial things are important,” said Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant who sits on the library’s board of trustees, “but we shouldn’t overlook the importance of diversity in a position that’s a resource for communities.”
The Concerned Black Workers, a group of staff members of color at the library, told the news website Billy Penn that their requests to be part of the hiring process for Reardon’s replacement were rejected, but that they looked forward to meeting Richards on the new job.
Richards views his new role as a lobbyist, and when it comes to courting lawmakers, he said he will play against the stereotype of the quiet librarian.
“I got to be loud, out there with the pom-poms, cheering this library on, really letting them know and understand where we’re hurting,” Richards said. “If you weren’t at the dinner table growing up, you didn’t eat. We got to make sure we’re at that dinner table.”