Sitting in the Blankenburg School library with a stack of recently donated books, Sabre Satchell, 12, pressed a purple star sticker onto the spine of a picture book. Purple or red stickers are code for easy reading.
Satchell, a fifth grader, passed the book to fellow fifth-grade library assistant Justin Chase, 10, who filled out a card with the title and author's name to put inside the back cover.
Part-time librarian Margaret Sipple, a retired longtime teacher from Bryn Mawr, watched the cataloguing from nearby. She stepped in only once, to settle a dispute between Justin and Sabre about whether a picture book on seasons around the world was fiction or nonfiction.
Until 2006, the library at Blankenburg - which serves West Philadelphia students in kindergarten through eighth grade - had been closed to students for about five years because of school district budget cutbacks.
But with the help of the nonprofit West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), volunteers such as Sipple have reopened - and now help run - the libraries at Blankenburg and at Bluford School. WePAC, through its Open Books Open Minds project, plans to reopen or expand services at six more libraries by the end of the 2009-10 school year.
WePAC executive director Ralph Godbolt said the alliance created Open Books in January to expand Blankenburg's program to other schools without library services. School district official Lois McGee - who connected WePAC with school administrators - said many elementary schools began reducing services or closing libraries over the last decade in the face of budget cutbacks.
Of the 23 public elementary schools in West Philadelphia, eight have no library services and many of the remaining libraries operate part-time, according to WePAC program director Lauren Dodington. Godbolt said about half of the nearly 9,500 elementary school students in the district have little or no access to an in-school library.
When city officials announced last year that they were considering public library closures, Godbolt said the Open Books program took on greater significance.
"What truly concerned us is that 4,000 students might not have access to any library at all," he said.
Blankenburg's library - one of the eight without any services until recently - was the first that WePAC helped reopen, and the group hopes to fashion future partnerships on that model.
Blankenburg's literacy coordinator, Tracy Manela, said that when she arrived in 1991, the library was "dirty and dusty." The book collection, she said, was outdated, damaged, and "mice-bitten."
Through a partnership with Drexel University in 2005, volunteers cleaned out the library and put in new tables, chairs, and shelves. The following year, Sipple and other WePAC volunteers restocked the library with an estimated 3,000 books and other donated materials.
Every Wednesday, the volunteers organize art projects and help students check out books in the library. Teachers can also bring students to the library throughout the week.
The library, Sipple said, "is an opportunity to be a community ... without the academic pressure."
For pupils such as Justin, who said he had not been to a public library in years, the school library offers a chance "to see different books I'd never seen before." He said he especially likes books about drawing, and poetry by Langston Hughes.
Although there is no way to track the library's influence on reading ability or test scores, Manela said giving students access to books improves literacy skills. She pointed out that as Justin and Sabre were cataloguing books, they were also flipping through and reading them.
"It's a sign of progress," she said.
McGee said feedback from teachers and staff working with volunteers "has been nothing but positive and hopeful." She added that school administrators are "grateful" WePAC can step in until the district's fiscal situation improves.
In preparation for future partnerships, WePAC is planning book drives this summer. At a May 19 drive, Dodington said, the alliance collected about 10,000 books, and hopes to get as many as 100,000 over the next few months.
Sipple said that while Blankenburg's library collection is sufficient, it is in need of recent nonfiction texts; one book about oceans dates to 1967.
Volunteer coordinator Sue Gibbons said that there is a plan to hold a training session for interested library volunteers in August. Of WePAC's more than 200 volunteers, nine work in the Open Books program.
Godbolt said future plans for Open Books include reading campaigns and computer classes for students, assuming they can get computers donated.
"We plan to stay in the schools until the district can take over," he said.