Over the last week, the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia have sent about 60 letters to corporate, philanthropic and university leaders to help restore $8 million needed to run the imperiled libraries.
The group is also pushing a "share the pain" proposal, said to be favored by City Council, that the Friends believe would allow all libraries to remain open for a four-day week.
And, if the libraries close Jan. 1 as the Nutter administration plans, the Friends, as a last resort, suggest turning the buildings into community learning centers, underwritten by corporations.
"We're trying to come up with a way to create a funding plan," said Friends director Amy Dougherty. "We're fighting to keep all these branches open."
Dougherty plans to hold a luncheon Dec. 10 that she hopes will be attended by the private-sector leaders to whom she has written.
Her list of potential attendees is a who's who of the region's elite. Whether they will kick in money, advice, or other resources remains to be seen, since many of them may not have received letters yet, Dougherty said.
Contacted independently, two would-be donors from the Friends' list indicated they would be phoning in regrets.
"Our foundation is limited by its bylaws to help New Jersey only," said John Faulkner, a spokesman for Campbell Soup in Camden.
And a spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania said the school "will not be getting involved in city politics."
In an e-mailed statement, the Pew Charitable Trusts said yesterday it must consider the Friends' request "in the context of competing priorities and demands. In the current environment, Pew's resources, like those of so many other philanthropies, are significantly constrained."
There is precedent for the private sector stepping in to help threatened libraries in a big city.
"The only case I know was during the financial crisis in New York City in 1974, when the city went bankrupt," said Bernard Anderson, senior fellow at the Wharton School at Penn. "Major corporations came forward and provided funding to keep libraries open."
That should be what happens here, according to Daryl La Fountain, executive director of Women's Action Group of Pennsylvania, an advocacy organization for women and children.
"Business leaders have gotten many, many perks for being in business in the city, and they need to step up," La Fountain said. "The library is under assault."
Should private funding fail to materialize, Dougherty's Plan B is a suggestion to the city that it save its $8 million by opening all branches just four days a week. Spreading the hardship should preclude the shuttering of any branches, she said.
City Councilman Bill Green endorses this plan and believes it is the solution to the problem.
Free Library president and director Siobhan Reardon has said that to save the necessary $8 million, the libraries could only be open three, not four, days. That solution is unworkable, she has concluded.
Responding yesterday, Green said: "Siobhan Reardon is wrong. Tell her to provide me the data that backs up what she's saying, which I've been asking for for three weeks."
He added that the city should "respect the Friends" and give the group six months to come up with a plan to save the branches.
A source close to City Council who requested anonymity because the source is not permitted to speak with the media said yesterday that most Council members agreed with Green, and that they were working on a statement to save the threatened 11 branches and keep all libraries open four days a week.
The source added that some Council members were also looking into a little-known section of city code, never before tested in court, that says that closure of any public capital facility has to have approval of Council.
The Nutter administration has said repeatedly it has the unilateral right to shutter libraries as it sees fit.
If all else fails and the libraries do close, Dougherty and the Friends are looking into a plan to turn the buildings into community learning centers stocked with computers to help students as well as job-seekers.
"They would have everything libraries have except lending books," Dougherty said. She added that she hoped the city, which owns the buildings, would lease them to the Friends for $1 a year. She would look to the private sector to underwrite the computers and other needed materials.
Administration spokesman Doug Oliver said Mayor Nutter expressed willingness to explore the concept of learning centers.
"But, at the end of the day," Oliver said, "the final solution will need to preserve the $8 million."
And, Oliver said, one of the administration's primary points is that the library system is too big and needs to be pruned.
In yet another attempt to save the libraries, the Friends have been researching whether 19th-century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie - who funded four of the imperiled libraries - ever stipulated that the buildings remain libraries in perpetuity.
Dougherty said that research shows that two of the branches to be closed - Haddington and Holmesburg - have deeds that say the buildings must "revert back to the grantor" if they cease to be libraries.
According to Jane Gorjevsky, archivist at the Carnegie Collections at Columbia University, Carnegie was not the grantor. Further, he "did not put any blanket restrictions" on the buildings' use, Gorjevsky said.
But there's still a mystery, because it's not clear who the grantor was. Often, Carnegie asked the communities in which his libraries were to be built to come up with the land. It's possible that the ancestors of the original landowners are the grantors, Gorjevsky said.
If that's the case, the buildings may actually belong to them, she added.
Such detail is important to Dougherty and to the thousands who have attended rallies to save the libraries. Emotions are running high.
"People are preparing to lay down in front of trucks that will cart books out of these libraries," Dougherty said.