City's library-closing plan sparks outcry
Desperate to find revenue, the Nutter administration made the difficult choice to shutter 11 libraries and save $8 million. What city officials might not have calculated was the outrage fomented in communities that see the facilities as havens meant to protect and edify children, and as tiny oases of culture that improve life in worsening times.
Desperate to find revenue, the Nutter administration made the difficult choice to shutter 11 libraries and save $8 million.
The hope was that the remaining libraries, left to function unimpeded by further cuts, could still serve the city without too much inconvenience.
What city officials might not have calculated was the outrage fomented in communities that see the facilities as havens meant to protect and edify children, and as tiny oases of culture that improve life in worsening times.
Community protests already have begun, with more being contemplated.
If the plan holds, Philadelphia will be the only major U.S. city responding to the sickened economy by closing a large number of its library branches, a leading library authority says.
And that drastic move, expected to affect thousands of city children, will be exacerbated by the bleak state of Philadelphia's public schools, half of which do not have libraries to take up the slack, advocates say.
"No other city is shutting down libraries as much as Philadelphia," Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association, said yesterday. "The city is taking the most dramatic steps in the nation."
Other cities faced with similar financial difficulties, such as New York, are not closing libraries - they're cutting back hours, said Rettig.
"It's especially poignant and ironic that Mayor Nutter is closing these libraries," Rettig said, referring to an award that Nutter, then a city councilman, and Councilman Frank DiCicco received from Library Journal magazine in 2005 as "Politicians of the Year" for helping restore funding to Philadelphia libraries.
Ultimately, Rettig said, closing libraries "is a short-term response to a serious situation that will have long-term loss. We really shouldn't sacrifice libraries for short-term needs."
Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver said that the idea to close the 11 libraries was reached after city officials decided they did not want to "harm every library" by making across-the-board reductions in services and hours.
If such reductions were made, Oliver said last night, no library could be open more than three days a week. "They'd be closed more than open," he said. "That would do tremendous harm across the entire system."
He added that care was taken to ensure that closed libraries would not be more than two miles from existing libraries.
Oliver also said that the city considered factors such as library usage, size, and condition of facilities and neighborhood density in making its decision. He did not elaborate.
Fewer libraries might be needed, Oliver said, noting that the current library system was built for a city of two million residents. "We're closer to 1.5 million now, and that's a significant difference," he said.
"We know it's painful, but we have an opportunity to right-size this, and create an infrastructure that matches the city as it now is."
Unconvinced by city arguments, library advocates say that perhaps the greatest harm of the closings will be visited on schoolchildren. Many youngsters use the libraries as safe after-school gathering places while their parents work.
Beyond their use as havens, public libraries offer more than poor or nonexistent school libraries, advocates say.
Children whose families are poor or working poor don't have computers or quiet places to study, and they especially need libraries to advance in their school careers, said Amy Dougherty, director of Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that serves as a liaison between the public and library administration.
She said that fewer than half of Philadelphia schools have libraries, and that most of those were "inadequate."
She added that in the entire city of Philadelphia, there is only one school library - at Central High School - that garners an "acceptable" rating under state guidelines.
What's more, said Christie Balka of the advocacy group Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, there is just one full-time, trained school librarian working in the 16 schools closest to the 11 libraries slated for closure.
The Philadelphia School District did not return a call for comment.
"On the one hand, our mayor stakes out the ambitious goal of increasing high school graduates," Balka said, "and on the other, he's shutting libraries permanently. It's hard to comprehend."
Stoking resentment about the announced closings - which already spawned an angry rally Monday night outside the imperiled Fishtown Community branch - is the opaque nature of the administration's decision-making process.
"I was surprised and blindsided by this," Dougherty said. "We have not been part of the conversation."
She added that she was distressed that the closings would be permanent.
"I don't understand that," Dougherty said. "Is this about selling buildings? Are the libraries going to be sold to make Wal-Marts?"
Oliver said last night that the libraries weren't being shut to find new revenue streams for the city. He added, however, that the city would study whether the library buildings could be sold or used in a different way.
Although the city stresses that no library will be farther than two miles from a shuttered one, that's little comfort for parents.
"In this day and age, you can't have a 9-year-old kid walk two miles to the next library," said A.J. Thomson, a lawyer and president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, which staged a protest rally outside the Fishtown Community Branch library Monday night.
"That would be a rough two miles."
And even when children get to their new libraries, there may not be sufficient resources to accommodate them.
"Will there be more staff, books, computers and chairs?" asked Dougherty. "Well, no."
Besides children, senior citizens use the libraries as a gathering place, especially in the mornings.
And these days, many people of every background are using library computers to search out and apply for jobs.
"People need their libraries more than ever in hard times," said Rettig of the library association. "They turn to libraries for career information and Internet access. A lot of employees require electronic applications."
Beyond that, people who can no longer afford to buy books or rent films take advantage of library collections, Rettig said.
In search of solutions, Dougherty said, she and others are exploring the idea of tapping the private sector to bail out the imperiled libraries.
"It really is an assault on the library system," said Daryl LaFountain, executive director of Womens Action Group of Pennsylvania, an advocacy organization. "We've reached out to Comcast, Aramark, Colonial Penn, Sunoco and Toll Brothers. Maybe the system can be removed from the city budget and function by private endowment."
That has happened in other municipalities, with mixed results, said Rettig, who said the library association recommends against private ownership, because libraries "should remain directly accountable to the publics they serve."
Nevertheless, Dougherty said, she and others are determined to fight the Nutter plan.
"It may take six months or a year," Dougherty said. "But I think we will win this."
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