When West Oak Lane resident Marcia Logan needs to use a library, she drives past the one seven blocks from her home, the David Cohen Ogontz branch. Instead, she heads 20 minutes away to the suburbs.
“I never use libraries in the city. I always go out to Abington,” said Logan, who home-schools her daughter Imani. “We can get on the computer and use it all day. In Philadelphia, they give you 30 minutes. What can you do on the computer in 30 minutes if you have a project or something to do?”
Most important, the suburban libraries she frequents have weekend hours — not to mention free parking and plenty of enrichment activities for her 12-year-old, whom she hopes to entice to enjoy reading as much as she does.
“Abington [Township Public Library] is open every day. Elkins Park is open every day except Sunday,” Logan, a former teacher, told me. Even in struggling Camden, the library is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
In Philadelphia, the libraries tell a totally different story.
On nights and weekends, when most working folks have time, Philly’s libraries are shuttered. Not a single city library is open on the weekends, and many of the city’s 54 libraries, including Parkway Central, the crown jewel of the system, don’t stay open past 6 p.m. due to lack of staffing. Some libraries don’t open until noon these days and fewer than a dozen are open until 8 p.m. Those that do stay open that late only do so for a day or two each week.
As the daughter of a school librarian, I’m appalled that these vitally important institutions are so often closed. This sad state of affairs is even more shameful when you consider the dearth of certified school librarians. Sadly, the district reportedly has only 10 on staff. It’s disgraceful that Philadelphia is home to America’s first lending library — but somehow, we can’t manage to make public libraries more available to Philadelphians.
“It’s uncivilized,” Councilmember Helen Gym told me Wednesday. “So much has been taken away or denied to our young people.”
In addition to being learning institutions, libraries can be a key part of our antiviolence strategy by providing safe spaces for community members to gather. But they need to be open to do so. As Philly’s crisis of violence continues — 121 people have been killed this year in the city, a number roughly 1% higher than this time last year — it should be a no-brainer to invest in neighborhood institutions like libraries.
Gym, along with other Council members, Friends of the Free Library volunteers, and others demonstrated outside City Hall on Monday to call for $30 million in additional funding. Currently, annual funding is just 75% of what it was in 2008 — the year that former Mayor Michael Nutter pushed to shutter 11 libraries — and staffing levels are at about 65% of where they were in 2009, according to Gym’s office. On the day of the demonstration, 15 libraries were closed or had to reduce their hours because of staffing issues. I checked several days later and saw that four were closed for the same reason and another had reduced hours.
The Free Library of Philadelphia announced in September 2019 that all of its branches would be open six days a week — that changed only six months later because of COVID-19 restrictions. Now that branches have reopened, they’re dealing with staff shortages.
But even without the pandemic, Philly’s libraries have long been in need of more resources to better serve the people of Philadelphia. In 2015, Mayor Jim Kenney campaigned on a promise to work to restore and maintain libraries. With less than two years left in his second term, time is running out for him to keep his promise.
On Thursday, he proposed a $55.8 million budget for libraries, which includes a $10.4 million increase. Administration officials hope this will help ensure that facilities can be open five days a week.
“That’s better than what we got before,” said Linda Colwell Smith, cochair of the Friends of the Free Library, a community organization that supports and advocates for the institution. “This is not bad. That’s a good start. But we’ll be out there advocating for more. We want $30 million. This is $10 million. We’ll work for some more.”
The next step is for Council to hold hearings and negotiate with the administration to reach a final version by this summer. I’ll be watching to see if Gym will turn Monday’s advocacy into action by working with her fellow Council members to ensure that even more resources are allocated to libraries.
Until then, Logan plans to continue bypassing city facilities and heading to the suburbs when she or her daughter needs to use a library. “I can go to the library every day in Cheltenham Township,” Logan told me. “I can’t do that in Philadelphia.”
Nor can the rest of us. That’s a crying shame.