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Philly Free Library director Siobhan Reardon is under growing pressure to quit amid racial discrimination complaints

Accusations of racial discrimination and insensitivity at the Free Library have been simmering for years.

Siobhan Reardon has led the Free Library of Philadelphia for 12 years.
Siobhan Reardon has led the Free Library of Philadelphia for 12 years.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney is pressuring Siobhan Reardon, the longtime president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, to resign following employees’ complaints about racial discrimination in the workplace and inadequate coronavirus safety planning, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation.

A group of Free Library trustees, most of whom are Black, is also pushing the board to consider a leadership change, the sources said. Free Library board chair Pamela Dembe, who is supportive of Reardon, confirmed that Reardon is weighing whether to step down after 12 years.

“It’s certainly on the table, obviously. There’s a lot of people calling for her to resign,” Dembe said. “She loves the library dearly and is thinking about what’s best for the library.”

Reardon did not respond to a request for comment.

Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn said the mayor “has heard the concerns of Free Library employees — particularly Black employees — as well as advocates.”

“He takes those concerns about the library system very seriously and is engaged in substantive conversations about the future of the library system under current leadership,” Dunn said in a statement. “Because those conversations involve personnel matters, we are not able to be more specific at this time.”

Two of the people who confirmed the efforts to oust Reardon are Free Library officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to speak on behalf of the library system. The third works in the Kenney administration.

Unlike the heads of city agencies, Reardon cannot be fired by Kenney because the Free Library is controlled by an independent board of trustees made up of mayoral appointees and others selected by the library system itself.

Kenney, however, is considering using other powers available to him to force the change. The mayor went as far as to threaten to take control of the Free Library’s assets, which are owned by the city, if Reardon “doesn’t do the right thing,” one of the Free Library sources said. The administration source said the mayor would consider appointing a city-employed manager to oversee library operations, superseding the Free Library leadership, if Reardon doesn’t resign.

Accusations of racial discrimination and insensitivity at the Free Library have been simmering for years. But they came to a head in June when members of a group called the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia sent an open letter to management saying they face discrimination on a regular basis, are paid less than white colleagues, and are being asked to return to work without a plan to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

“We have determined that racial discrimination and disregard for Black safety, success, prosperity, and life at the Free Library will no longer be tolerated,” the employees wrote.

At least six authors have canceled virtual events at the library in solidarity with the workers.

The Free Library, which has 54 branches, last year had just over 800 employees, including 391 who were Black and 351 who were white. The Concerned Black Workers say layoffs resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have disproportionately affected Black employees. Black workers, the letter said, make an average of $7,533 less than the library system’s median salary, while white employees earn $12,012 above the median.

Reardon’s handling of the Black employees’ demands has been a point of contention in recent weeks.

On July 14, Reardon sent the Black employees a letter outlining steps to address their concerns, including hiring a chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and tapping the consulting firm DiverseForce to conduct a “comprehensive review of our workplace culture, past practices and policies.”

The employees, however, believe it was actually written by the Washington-based crisis management consultant Rae Robinson Trotman based on the email address on the letter.

”We find it disrespectful that the president of the Free Library could not write her own response to her staff and still refuses to present workers with an action plan to address our demands,” the employees said in a statement to The Inquirer.

Uneasiness with Reardon’s leadership among library trustees grew following a letter Sunday to employees from Dembe and Barbara Sutherland, who chairs the board of a foundation that raises money for the Free Library. The letter promised action on the Black workers’ demands, but also said the chairs “remain committed to the leadership of Siobhan Reardon.”

That led nine Free Library trustees and four foundation board members to send an email Tuesday calling for Dembe to move up a scheduled board meeting “to discuss the disposition of Siobhan Reardon.” The board members who signed that email said Dembe and Sutherland’s endorsement of Reardon was never approved by the trustees.

“We have tried to operate in a unified manner believing that doing so was in the best interest of the Free Library of Philadelphia,” the email said. “We also thought the organization actually believed the health, safety and well-being of the Black employees mattered.”

Dembe said the board of trustees’ officers gave her authority to make the statement.

“The library was pretty slow to respond to the various public outcries, and the board told us — or the executive committee told us — that the two board leaders needed to be able to be agile,” Dembe said. “By the time we got a letter out, the situation on the ground had changed, so I’m not surprised that people were a bit annoyed.”

Staff writer Mensah M. Dean contributed to this article.