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Philly libraries are still months away from returning to normal

Only 28 of the 54 library branches are currently offering walk-in services, with limited hours. Others offer pickup or services by appointment, but may not fully reopen until the fall.

Members of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, library workers, and community supporters rally in front of the Parkway Central Library on June 2 to call for more funding for the system.
Members of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, library workers, and community supporters rally in front of the Parkway Central Library on June 2 to call for more funding for the system.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Bars are packed again, the Wells Fargo Center is full of Sixers fans, and large-scale events are back on in Philadelphia.

But there’s been no return to normal for the city’s libraries.

Despite being cleared to reopen at capacity as of May 21, a full reopening of the Free Library’s 54 branches is still months away. Only 28 branches are open for in-person, in-building services, but with limited hours. The other 26 branches offer varying combinations of pickup options, services by appointment, or outdoor programming — but no walk-in hours.

Mayor Jim Kenney said his proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes enough funding to restore five-day per week library service. But even that will take time, and wouldn’t be a full return to pre-pandemic funding — or the six-day service that started in 2019. Staffing levels and workers’ safety concerns, among other issues, have created additional uncertainty.

Yvette Hill Robinson, a Friends of the Free Library board co-chair, said it’s been confusing for residents to hear from Kenney that libraries are cleared to reopen and will offer five-day service. Many don’t realize that’s not true until they walk up to their neighborhood branch and see signs posted on the door, she said.

”School is ending, you have parents, grandparents, families that plan their days around having the library being open,” she said.

The library system needs to hire about 60 full-time staff to fully reopen, spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy said. Officials hope to complete that process by the fall, she said, and will also hire 66 temporary employees to staff after-school programs.

» READ MORE: What’s holding up Philly budget talks? Everyone wants a slice of stimulus money — or to be mayor.

When Kenney delivered his budget address in April, he touted a $2.9 million increase for the library, to expand service to five days per week and restore after-school programs.

His proposed $42.6 million in library funding for the fiscal year that starts in July is more than the current budget, which represented a 14% cut as the city faced a $750 million pandemic budget hole. The library laid off 207 temporary workers last year and lost 48 full-time staff through attrition.

But the new proposal is still less than the $46 million budget the library had before the pandemic. Libraries expanded services to six days per week under the budget approved in 2019.

The Free Library’s precise funding for the next fiscal year is still subject to change, with City Council and the Kenney administration expected to reach a final budget deal this week after protracted negotiations.

Library advocates are pushing for more funding and a return to regular services.

“We understand that there’s staffing issues and we understand the safety concerns and we want everyone to be safe when they visit the library, but we’re not recovering like everybody else,” said Linda Colwell Smith, who co-chairs the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia board.

Carrying signs reading “Libraries Save Lives” and “No Funding = Closed Libraries,” about 20 members of the group rallied earlier this month outside the main branch off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and called on Council to increase funding.

“If this last year has taught us anything, it’s that our community relies on its free accessible services, especially when times are tough,” Terry Lawrence, a Friends of the Free Library member who uses the Cecil B. Moore branch, said at the rally. “We need robust service now more than ever.”

Many of the libraries that offer walk-in services are only open for four hours per day, two or three days a week.

Foti Kalosy, the library spokesperson, noted that its website offers details about hours and operations at each branch, and said operations will gradually expand in the coming months.

» READ MORE: Until all 54 libraries reopen, Philly can’t recover from COVID-19 | Editorial

Library workers, meanwhile, have concerns about safety and staffing levels. Kate Goodman, a library worker in North Philadelphia, said the number of staff assigned to each branch is often only the minimum required to open and doesn’t account for days off or other issues. And she’s concerned about the end of occupancy limits and mask requirements — especially for small library buildings and in neighborhoods with lower vaccination rates.

“If we have no ability to limit occupancy to social distance or act or require people to wear masks, that leaves workers and patrons unprotected,” she said.

Masks are still strongly recommended for people who aren’t fully vaccinated, Foti Kalosy said.

Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME DC47, the union that represents library workers, said the union is working with the city to ensure safety. The question of masks, she said, “is an ongoing issue.”

“We have strongly encouraged every one of our members to get vaccinated,” Scott said. “They have public contact and that’s one of the major protections that you can have and we continue to encourage people to be vaccinated. But that’s no guarantee that the people that are coming into the library are vaccinated, too.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.