On June 2nd, Mayor Jim Kenney lifted COVID-related restrictions on local businesses and announced the reopening of Philadelphia. But not everything has reopened. Twenty six of the city’s public libraries remain closed for in-person services, leaving many Philadelphians without vital resources.
For many Philadelphians, the library is an indispensable resource, particularly for those without online access. According to 2018 census data, Philadelphia falls behind other major cities when it comes to broadband penetration. From after-school programs like LEAP, to providing a safe, cool, comfortable place during the city’s increasingly hot summers, the social services provided at libraries represent a key part of the city’s ecosystem. Closed libraries exacerbate the tensions of our pandemic era.
While city officials are hopeful that all library branches will be open five days a week by the time school starts in August, staffing shortages complicate these plans. Additionally, the library has been without a permanent director for nearly a year, after longtime leader Siobhan Reardon resigned amid growing concerns over racism, safety, and pay equity raised by Concerned Black Employees of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
While the city confirms that there are no plans to close any library branches in 2021 and that the library’s hiring freeze will end on July 1, the library — which unlike city agencies, is overseen by an independent board of trustees made up of mayoral appointees and others selected by the library system itself — has not been given enough resources to best serve the people of Philadelphia.
Library struggles are not new to Philadelphia. During the Nutter administration, the city barely avoided the closure of 11 libraries.
Now, positions that in the past would have been staffed by full time employees have been filled with seasonal workers, which makes recruiting and retaining quality workers difficult. There are also pressing physical deficits at some branches. For example, librarians at the Roxborough branch report that the library’s phones don’t consistently work, a far cry from the “high class and maintained facilities” Kenney promised while campaigning in 2015.
Mayor Kenney’s proposed $2.9 million increase in funding puts the library’s funding below pre-pandemic levels and it is unlikely that this meager increase will provide the necessary boost to a long-suffering system. Friends of the Free Library, a community organization that supports and advocates for the institution, put the personnel needs of the library at 150 new positions system-wide and a total cost of $15 million dollars above the proposed budget.
A return to pre-pandemic library funding is an improvement, but it still falls short of the Mayor’s promise to rebuild the system during his election campaigns.
In order for the library to best serve Philly residents, and the Free Library’s board of trustees must install a permanent director, and the Kenney administration must commit to working with the trustees on a plan — not just a hope — for reopening all libraries by the time school starts in the fall. As the city recovers from the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19, libraries are a key resource. Only when all 54 branches are accessible can we say that the city is fully reopened.