In the city’s poorest neighborhoods, libraries close earlier and more often
Branches in areas that are more financially distressed are more likely to be closed by 6 p.m. on weekdays and not open at all on weekends. Libraries in communities with low poverty rates are more likely to stay open until 8 p.m., and be open on weekends. In addition, across the city, branches experience unanticipated closures due to staffing shortages, with the poorest neighborhoods — North, Northeast, Southwest and North Central — accounting for more than half of the 372 closures so far this year.
Eileen Paonessa squinted at a white sign taped to brown bars at the Ramonita G. de Rodriguez branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in North Philadelphia one afternoon last week.
"Due to insufficient staffing, the Rodriguez Library will remain closed today…," the sign read.
Before Paonessa finished reading the notice, she walked away, frustrated.
"It seems like it's always closed, or open[ing] late, or something," she said, noting that she comes to the branch each week and that many times when she does, it's closed.
For residents of her neighborhood — like others around the city — showing up to closed library doors happens frequently.
An examination of Free Library of Philadelphia branch operating hours showed that neighborhood branches in communities with high poverty rates often close earlier and more often than those in areas with low poverty rates.
Rodriguez sits on the edge of Ludlow, an area where the poverty rate is about 44 percent.
Branches in more financially distressed areas like that are more likely to be closed by 6 p.m. on weekdays, the data show. City libraries in communities with low poverty rates, such as Torresdale, where the poverty rate is 9.7 percent, are more likely to stay open until 7 p.m. or later.
In addition, across the city, branches experience unanticipated closures due to staffing shortages, with the poorest neighborhoods — in North, Northeast, Southwest, and North Central Philadelphia — accounting for more than half of the 372 closures this year.
Free Library leadership says early or impromptu closings at certain branches aren't correlated with specific neighborhood locations but are a side effect of having to stretch and balance an insufficient budget.
"We are constantly moving chess pieces in order to" open branches each day, said Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the library.
"We try to get them all open as close to six days as absolutely possible," she added. "Due to staffing constraints, it becomes difficult sometimes, but that has nothing to do with what we plan to open and what it is we get open."
Libraries in the poorest, most vulnerable communities often serve as hubs, offering patrons such critical services as access to computers with internet to do resumés and complete homework and online job applications; air-conditioning to cool off in the summer, quiet spaces to complete homework assignments or seek help after school; or a safe place to go.
City aid, state funding, and private donations help sustain the library system. Reardon arrived a decade ago, at a time, she said, when the system was facing massive cuts in city funding. It hasn't fully recovered, she said, and the loss of funding impacts staffing and hours.
"When you lost $8 million 10 years ago and you've only built back maybe three of that eight, you're still behind the eight ball," she said. "Always."
The issue is similar to one confronting library systems and their administrators across the state,"who, in order to meet their operational budgets, have had to cut hours," said Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, the state's largest advocacy organization for libraries.
"It's a struggle," she said. "Library funding has mostly been stagnant after several significant cuts. … And, of course, expenses have continued to go up."
Part of the library's balancing act is trying to set equitable hours for the city's more than 50 branches and keep them staffed.
Branch hours are recommended to Reardon by library staff, who "strive to fill the community's needs based on usage patterns," said Lynn Williamson, chief of the neighborhood library services division. For each branch, Williamson said, she and other administrative librarians look at "what's going on in the neighborhood," times of activity, the volume of circulation, foot traffic, and computer usage.
"In neighborhoods where the community doesn't feel as safe in the evenings, they're less likely to use the library" at night, Williamson said, accounting for 6 p.m. closures.
A 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts study said Philadelphia patrons use public libraries less than patrons of 14 other big-city library systems, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The study attributed the lower use to the "extraordinary number of times that branches have experienced temporary, unscheduled closings in the past few years."
Back at Rodriguez, Michael Kittrell, 30, and friend NaQuan Rollins, 28, passed by the closure notice on the gate, taking a brief moment to stop and read.
Kittrell said when he visits the branch to use its computers a few times each week it's usually open.
"But they seem to close early sometimes, too much. I think they should stay open until at least 7 p.m.," said Kittrell, who lives in the neighborhood.
Not opening some days because of a lack of staffing "is sort of appalling," said Ruth Brown, president of the branch's Friends group. "Patrons go up to the door and get [angry] at us," she added.
When asked whether the hours at Rodriguez accommodates its residents, Brown responded, "In two words, they don't."
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. See all of our reporting at https://brokeinphilly.org.