Libraries don’t just change lives, they form lives. My neighborhood library was my after-school gathering place. In the guise of doing homework, my friends and I went to gossip and plan social activities. We found popular books and debated about the characters. Which March sister did we prefer to be: Meg, Jo, or Amy? Was it better to be like Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth?
As I continued through college and graduate school at Penn State and Temple, libraries were key in researching class papers and finishing my degrees. Copies of original articles obtained at college libraries and the Free Library filled my file cabinet drawers and cluttered every surface. I could not have found any of them without the help of skilled librarians.
I have a doctorate now, but my connection to libraries continues. Wadsworth, my current neighborhood library, is a hotbed of activity. Toddlers in day care come for storytime. Older adults attend special programs and health fairs. Other people float in and out during the day browsing through books, reading papers and magazines, or just relaxing. Several schedule community meetings. Like me, many need librarians’ expert advice to reduce the overwhelming clutter of Google search results to a meaningful source of articles.
Now more than ever, lifelong learning is the key to being productive and fulfilled. In Philadelphia, one single organization — the Free Library — addresses learning for all citizens, from cradle to grave. Yet, the mayor and City Council consistently overlook the significance of the library and its 54 branches. For 2022, Mayor Jim Kenney initially proposed a library budget that was less than what it spent in 2020. (Thankfully, last week’s budget deal restored the library funding.) Branch facilities are in dire need of repairs; some may not fully reopen until the fall, even as the rest of the city returns to pre-pandemic life.
This consistent undervaluing of one of the city’s most precious resources must change.
Everyone knows that their library is a personal safe haven for residents of all ages. Some young readers participate in the LEAP after-school tutoring and activities program (which, if I had had access to, might have saved me from failing chemistry), others have personal tutors, while many play games or use computers. The librarians learn family members’ names and situations, give directions, and offer advice. (One even recommended the city’s best tattoo artist for me.) I continuously use the Free Library for research and leisure reading. I find information about my ancestors in old magazine articles, maps, and books.
Currently, I am a member of the Wadsworth Friends of the Free Library committee and the citywide Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the umbrella organization for all of the branches. In the process, I’ve learned that many of the 54 branches are using the same buildings that existed in my childhood, over 50 years ago. Others are even older: The Falls of Schuylkill branch dates to 1913 and has been closed indefinitely amid HVAC repairs. The Chestnut Hill branch — located in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city — has had to periodically close due to a failing climate system, as well.
Earlier this month, the Friends of the Free Library held a rally and press conference asking for an additional $15 million in funding. This is a good start. In addition to paying for staff and restoring branches’ pre-pandemic hours and services, it needs funding for building improvements. The 2022 budget allocates $2 million for improvements to library facilities across the city — while that may sound like a lot, it is not nearly enough to cover the city’s 54 branches. One set of renovations at just one branch — albeit the Parkway Central location — cost nearly $36 million.
The Free Library of Philadelphia has a 130-year history devoted to lifelong learning. We need to ensure that the library continues that mission with better library services, more programs, and improved buildings so it can serve Philadelphians from cradle to grave for another 130 years.
Marilyn Dyson lives in Philadelphia’s East Mount Airy neighborhood. She is an active volunteer, knitter, and Friend of the Free Library.