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Philadelphia libraries are struggling to stay open and short hundreds of workers

The library needs to fill more than 300 positions, meaning it could be a year before service is normalized across the city.

Members of Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia from branches across the city, library workers, and community supporters rally in front of the Parkway Central Library in June 2021. The library has been gripped by a staffing shortage that means some branches struggle to stay open.
Members of Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia from branches across the city, library workers, and community supporters rally in front of the Parkway Central Library in June 2021. The library has been gripped by a staffing shortage that means some branches struggle to stay open.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Even under ordinary circumstances, Philadelphia’s library system is fragile.

Recession-era budget cuts and ping-ponging funding levels mean the number of workers getting books to Philadelphians has steadily declined from about 1,100 people a decade ago.

And then came 2020. With the city staring down a massive budget hole, it slashed the library’s funding and laid off more than 200 people. The director resigned amid a staff revolt and complaints of racial discrimination. People quit in droves and hiring was frozen. Skeleton crews reopened branches without enough help.

It has resulted in a staffing shortage that means the Free Library of Philadelphia, more than two years after the pandemic cuts, has about 600 employees and needs to hire about 350 more.

With such a dearth of staff, delivering even a basic level of service has become a Herculean task. Many of the system’s 53 libraries are open only a few days a week, some just four hours a day.

On a typical day this summer, nearly half of the branches reduced hours even more, usually because they didn’t have enough staff to stay open. None are open on weekends.

”We’re shuffling, we’re transferring around, we are trying so hard,” said Shelley Rosen, a librarian speaking as a member of District Council 47′s Local 2187. “But when you are 300-plus staff short, there is only so much you can do.”

The city is pumping money into the system, approving a $13 million budget increase in June that made hiring for 225 full-time positions possible. That comes atop more than 100 vacancies created through resignations and retirements.

Library officials say it could be a year before all those workers are hired and service can normalize, though they are hopeful some branches will increase hours in the coming months as workers are added.

Hiring so far this year has not kept pace with resignations and retirements. And staff continue to leave.

Chief operating officer Darren T. Cottman said the library is experiencing complications similar to other agencies and institutions navigating a chaotic post-pandemic labor market. The exodus of library staff comes amid a broader shortage of municipal workers across Philadelphia government, from police to building inspectors.

But the library system has embarked on one of the most ambitious hiring pushes of any city agency — filling a third of its budgeted positions — which it is doing with an executive team that’s new itself.

”It’s basically all hands on deck,” Cottman said, “and let’s keep the boat afloat.”

‘An absolute breakdown of services’

City libraries play a critical role in Philadelphia, especially for public school students, as the School District of Philadelphia has one of the worst librarian-to-student ratios in the country. Just four of its 216 schools have libraries with certified school librarians, according to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

City Councilmember Cindy Bass, who represents parts of North and Northwest Philadelphia and has advocated for increases to library funding, said constituents rely on city libraries for reasons beyond reading. For some, it’s where they apply for jobs, or the only place they can sit in air-conditioning.

And the branches are crucial to public safety, she said. In neighborhoods experiencing high rates of gun violence or drug overdose rates, libraries are a safe haven.

”This is an absolute breakdown of services in neighborhoods,” she said.

» READ MORE: Philly libraries and rec centers are at ‘completely unacceptable’ staffing levels, advocates say

Most library branches have reopened since they all closed in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic took hold. But many are open for far fewer hours than before.

For example, the South Philadelphia library, one of the busiest branches, had been open five days a week, usually for eight hours a day, and often had weekend hours, according to a 2019 schedule provided by a library spokesperson.

Today, the branch is scheduled to be open for four hours a day, four days a week. But due to staffing shortages, it often can’t open at all.

Even the smallest branches can’t safely open without at least four staff members: a librarian, a guard, and at least two library assistants, said Adam Feldman, a library supervisor and an official with Local 2187.

Some libraries have just a handful of employees on the payroll. If one person gets sick or takes vacation, help often has to come from another branch. Librarians have gotten used to bouncing between branches, just trying to keep the doors open.

“The pandemic really broke us,” Feldman said. “People are very burned out. We do it to ourselves, because we must continue to serve. It’s just wearing on people.”

At the same time, the number of library patrons has started to rebound. There were about 1.8 million visits to libraries recorded through July — 10 times the year prior, but still less than half of pre-pandemic levels, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the state-run board that oversees city finances.

Library officials said they’re hopeful program attendance, which has declined this year, will improve, too. The long-running Literacy Enrichment After-School Program, or LEAP, will be in-person again, providing free homework assistance to children and teenagers.

Cottman said LEAP is scheduled to be offered on weekdays at every library “as staffing and operating hours allow.”

”There will be some instances where individual libraries have closures that really can impact that program,” he said, but “in the coming months, hiring will allow the service to become stable.”

Why replacing workers takes months

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and City Council this year agreed to increase the library’s annual funding to $58.4 million, a nearly 30% bump over the previous fiscal year and $10 million higher than the year before the pandemic.

The administration has touted the funding as part of its violence-prevention plan. But City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, whose office recently studied the antiviolence plan, said it’s not enough to throw money at an agency that’s trying to claw back from defunding.

“Putting money in the budget is step one,” she said. “But this is a huge undertaking to hire hundreds of positions.”

» READ MORE: Opinion | Even with budget increase, Free Library is still not funded to fulfill its mission

There are a variety of reasons the process will take months, said Jennifer Maguire-Wright, a member of the library’s executive transition team. The administrative staff is still being filled out by the new director, who was hired in January. Next comes hiring for positions in human resources to recruit and onboard others.

From there, filling vacancies can have a cascading effect. Librarians will be promoted to supervisors, which leaves openings down the chain. And the pool of librarians, who must have a master’s degree in library science, is small.

From application to start date, hiring can take more than six months.

Those who start in the coming months will find a system buoyed by a new investment but still struggling. Elizabeth Gardiner, a library supervisor speaking as a member of DC47′s Local 2186, said she fears those hires will be thrown into “the worst staffing situation in memory.”

“Everything was decimated, and everything’s trying to be rebuilt at the same time,” she said. “It’s hard to operate when you’re building the ship at the same time you’re sailing it.”

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.