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Pew report: Free Library has challenges - and opportunities

Depending on how you look at it, the Free Library of Philadelphia, compared to its peers nationally, faces special challenges – or opportunities.

Depending on how you look at it, the Free Library of Philadelphia, compared to its peers nationally, faces special challenges – or opportunities. It resides in a city where less than 50 percent of public schools have an on-site library, and fewer still are staffed with librarians. More than half of city residents 16 and older may not be literate enough to qualify for jobs. The Free Library system itself is chronically under-funded, even as demand for services has increased during the recession.

These are some of the points made in a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released Wednesday, that places tasks ahead of the Free Library of Philadelphia in context against public libraries in 14 other cities.

The trials of Philadelphia's library system in the past few years are already well-documented in the press, and internally by library leaders. But "The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future" may give it critical outside validation as it gathers up support for renovation and expansion plans during the next several years.

A recurring theme in the report – and in the library's own strategic plan – is how services expected of the library by its patrons are transforming the institution from a "temple of knowledge" to a community center for public events, and a resource for seekers of jobs and government services.

Highlighted in the report, as well, is the library's "shadow mandate" role as support to public agencies. One example: when an after-school program lost half of its Dept. of Human Services funding this fall, the Free Library Foundation stepped in with the money to save it.

"I think the work they did relative to raising awareness of what a public library does is phenomenal," said Siobhan A. Reardon, the Free Library's president and director. "For us it really does tie in brilliantly to our strategic plan. I just kept on seeing connections between what we've been thinking about and what we need to pay attention to."

The library's collections are wide, deep and, in some areas – music and rare books - of sufficient specialization to draw scholars worldwide. But it was visitors drawn to internet access at the libraries, as well as public events such as the popular authors' series, that made the Free Library's central branch one of the most visited cultural institutions on the Parkway: 957,874 in 2010 (or about 17 percent of the visitorship to the entire Free Library system of 54 branches).

And yet, attendance could be better. "Philadelphians use their libraries less than their counterparts in most of the 14 other urban communities studied," the report found.

Low per-capita access to computers may be one contributing factor. But the study suggests that Philadelphians would be using libraries more if they could: branch closings due to budget cuts have depressed attendance numbers, and regular hours, particularly on weekends, are limiting use.

"Work rules in Philadelphia require that four library personnel, including a security guard, be present to open a branch," the report states. "Few of the other systems we studied have minimum staff requirements. . ."

The report – developed by Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative in consultation with library board and staff – dovetails with several of the Free Library's imminent agenda items.

Pew illustrates lively facilities at other libraries catering to teens; the Free Library has recently opened such a space, and has further plans in its upcoming expansion. It touts a renovation in Pittsburgh whose lobby welcomes visitors with couches and a café; Philadelphia has plans to soon make its lobby hospitable (with more ambitious renovations down the road).

The study blames reduced funding for the library, leading to deferred maintenance and a longer wait for books, as factors that have diminished the library's appeal.

The Pew report – which documents demographics of library users, as well as current funding sources - suggests a look at the library's "strange sort of hybrid" governance structure.

The library is run by both the City of Philadelphia and a non-profit fund-raising entity, the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, though the report acknowledges that the "arrangement has its pluses and minuses."

One area in which the Free Library compares favorably to counterparts in the study is attendance for special programs. Story-telling events for children, the speaker series and resume assistance for job-seekers drew 639,049 patrons – exceeding the average of other systems studied by nearly 50 percent.

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or Read his blog at