After 10 years, I recently resigned from the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation board of directors because of my concerns surrounding the recent ouster of library president Siobhan Reardon. I believe the board should have spoken up to support Reardon, in addition to responding immediately to the complaints outlined in the letter sent by concerned Black workers at the library on June 25. I tried to move both the trustee and foundation boards to respond immediately. In this, I failed.
In her 12 years at the library, Reardon accomplished much. That employees continue to face inequity and safety concerns is a problem that shouldn’t fall at her feet, when much of the blame goes to the city.
The main library has gone through a major renovation, as have many branch libraries. She reorganized the 54 branches into clusters, resulting in far fewer closures when having to cope with the inevitable swings in staffing availability. She promoted after-school learning programs and summer reading and modernized the main branch, adding a teen center and a kitchen to provide cooking lessons. She saved the Rosenbach Museum by having the Free Library take over that financially ailing institution. When the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided money to cities to launch an initiative to have all children reading at grade level by the end of third grade, Reardon committed the library to facilitate this program in Philadelphia. In a very important way, while modernizing the Free Library, Reardon ensured that it met the needs of underserved neighborhoods more effectively.
In the letter signed by more than a thousand persons, much of the criticism leveled is valid; however, it was misdirected. Many of the problems have to be solved by the mayor or City Council.
In Philadelphia, the president of the Free Library has too many bosses. Reardon had to answer to the mayor, two boards of directors, and City Council, which approves the budget for maintaining buildings and paying most library employees. Further, the library is completely beholden to the city’s Home Rule Charter for support services from others, for the procurement of staff, goods, and services.
One of the complaints outlined in the letter that led to Reardon’s ouster was that “libraries were used by the police and National Guard during the protests.” The fact is all the library buildings are city buildings. The city did not have to ask for permission from Reardon. Additionally, the letter also pointed out that in the branches, cleaning supplies and hand wipes were out of date. The city supplies these, not Reardon herself.
Another point stressed was that white employees earn more than Black employees. This is true, and begs the question, which I can’t answer: Were any Black master of library science grads who applied for jobs at the library turned away? A broader concern is with racial equity. About half the library’s 800 employees are Black. There are Black trustees and directors on the boards; however, their numbers are not representative of the city’s population, which is 44% Black.
Forcing Reardon to resign may seem like a victory to some. But it doesn’t fix any of the library’s broader problems. Will the city provide the resources needed to enable the library to provide a pathway for dedicated employees and determined residents to learn and advance?