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Libraries hit by random closings

LAST MONDAY, there was one. On Tuesday, there were five. And Thursday, there were six "unscheduled closings" of libraries in Philadelphia.

LAST MONDAY, there was one. On Tuesday, there were five. And Thursday, there were six "unscheduled closings" of libraries in Philadelphia.

On any given day this year, one or more branches of the 54-branch Free Library of Philadelphia have been closed unexpectedly due to staff shortages.

The daily closings have increased significantly since September, ranging from four to seven branches on most days. Ten branches closed or reduced their hours unexpectedly Dec. 3, for example.

"The library is critically short-staffed," said Amy Dougherty, director of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, who has been tracking the unscheduled closings. "Librarians [are] completely stressed out. They wake up not knowing what branches they're going to that day."

The closings are just the latest trouble for the beleaguered system.

Mayor Nutter tried to close 11 branches to deal with the budget deficit late last year, and his "Plan C" for this year's budget involved shutting down all branches on Oct. 2. But an outcry from residents and elected officials, along with new revenue-raising measures, kept the branches open.

Sort of. While no branches have been permanently shuttered, city and state budget cuts left the library unable to provide some of the services it promises. Branches aren't always open when they're supposed to be, programs have been cut and waiting periods for popular materials can be up to six months long.

The unscheduled closings are the most visible symptom of the library system's troubles, and are particularly disruptive for computer users (42 percent of the city's households don't have Internet access) and parents who need a safe place for their kids after school.

All of the library's neighborhood branches and regional libraries are supposed to be open five days a week, with about half open Monday through Friday and half open Tuesday through Saturday.

Only the central library on Vine Street is open seven days a week.

But even that library has struggled to maintain this schedule, which went into effect in early October, because its staff has shrunk. In January, the library lost nearly $8 million, or almost 20 percent of its funding from the city. Its state funding also decreased almost $2 million.

With roughly 85 percent of its budget devoted to personnel, the library was forced to eliminate nearly 115 jobs - 47 through layoffs, said library President and Director Siobhan Reardon in an e-mail.

Reductions in personnel make closings inevitable because employees get sick, have jury duty, etc., according to Sandy Horrocks, the library's Vice President of Communications and Development. The library tries to spread the burden by shuffling staff around, so that no single branch is closed for multiple days consecutively.

It was unable, however, to prevent the closure of the Eastwick branch in Southwest Philadelphia from November 2008 to April 2009, and again last month, due to a malfunctioning heater. The branch is now open.

The library posts its unscheduled closings by 10 a.m. daily on its Web site, notifies 3-1-1 and, when possible, hangs a sign on the branch's front door. But "it's a horrible inconvenience," said Horrocks.

In addition to shrinking staff numbers, new regulations instituted in February require a library branch to have four workers, including one security guard, in order to open. But the system hasn't had enough guards to meet this requirement for months, partly because 11 guards were transferred to other city duties last December.

The library replaced them with contract guards but money for that has run out. This, said Dougherty, is a chief reason why the number of unscheduled closings has risen substantially in the past few months.

The city finally approved the hiring of eight new guards for the library on Nov. 25, but it may take until February for the guards to be hired and trained.

Until then, four neighborhood branches - the Donatucci, Fumo Family, Santore and Whitman branches - will be closed one additional day per week.

"It's a good move that in a matter of weeks will provide higher-quality services," said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DeBerardinis, who oversees the libraries.

Dougherty, for her part, wants to know why it took the city six months to approve the library's request to hire more guards.

"Every decision by this administration takes too long," said City Councilman Bill Green, who opposed Nutter's original plan to close 11 branches.

The delay was a result of the fairly extensive Civil Service rules that have to be followed when filling vacancies, according to mayoral spokesman Doug Oliver.

Even though the hiring of new guards should reduce the number of unscheduled closings, the problem will not be fully resolved.

"The bottom line is that 650 library staff is not sufficient," says Dougherty. "Irrespective of how selectively and creatively library management deploys them throughout the system, the library needs a minimum of 750 positions."

Reardon said that even with eight additional guards, the library will not be able to guarantee an end to unscheduled closings.

In addition to the numerous unscheduled closings, the library has had to reduce its programming. The Central Library, for example, ended its weekly "infant story time" program in the fall.

The budget cuts affect everything, said Horrocks, explaining that it's difficult to offer career training or computer classes if buildings aren't open.

And yet demand for some library programs is up, said Reardon. The number of people seeking to use career-services programs has increased 37 percent this year.

Circulation is also up, but the library's materials budget is about 40 percent less than last year. It cannot order as many books or electronic resources as in the past, and waiting periods for popular books are now sometimes up to six months long.

Without sufficient money to stock its shelves with summer-reading books for students, the Library held a book drive in the spring. It met its goal of collecting 10,000 summer-reading books, which were donated by Target, Barnes & Noble and numerous individuals. The library plans to do a second book drive in spring 2010, perhaps for the general book collection, said Horrocks.

Kirstin Lindermayer reports for It's Our Money (, where a longer version of this article can be found.