City officials say Philadelphia's public library system has a green light to hire dozens of new employees by year's end and extend service hours at a dozen branches, but advocates maintain that the system needs a more dedicated and robust funding stream to help it grow and thrive.
The library system will fill 62 vacant positions, officials said, enabling it to open 35 of the 54 neighborhood branches six days a week.
The move follows the library's September announcement that only 23 of the 54 branches would open on Saturdays this school year due to a lack of funding.
After learning of the closures, Kenney called on the Free Library of Philadelphia's administration to re-evaluate its "staffing and management decisions," Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for the mayor, said. The Managing Director's Office and Mayor's Office also worked with Free Library leadership to reallocate staff and identify unfilled vacancies, allowing more branches to offer six-day service, she said.
A recent examination of Free Library branch operating hours showed that neighborhood branches in communities with high poverty rates often closed earlier and more often than those in areas with low poverty rates. Libraries in the most vulnerable communities often serve as hubs, offering patrons such 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; and simply a safe place to go.
The Free Library had 708 budgeted full-time positions in the mayor's 2019 budget. At the end of fiscal year 2018, it had 649 full-time staff, 102 part-time staff and 185 seasonal staff.
According to the city, the library will fill vacant budgeted positions with six new librarians, 13 full-time assistants, 24 seasonal assistants, seven new municipal guards, and 12 facility guards. The new hires will be made with funding already available from the Free Library's budget.
Gamble said Kenney wanted the system to "significantly expand Saturday hours by the end of 2018; offer Saturday hours at all branches by next fiscal year; and develop sustainable solutions that will enable Saturday service to continue at all branches in the future."
In a news release, Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library, said the system is "thrilled to be able to open 12 more of our neighborhood libraries for a sixth day."
At the time of the Free Library's September announcement, administrators blamed inadequate funding for a slew of understaffed branches and frequent, unanticipated closures.
But after reviewing the library's budget and staffing levels, the Managing Director's Office discovered the unfilled vacancies and also found that while some branches experienced closures due to staffing, those instances were dwarfed by closures related to maintenance and facility problems.
Building emergencies accounted for 396, or more than half, of the libraries' unanticipated closures in fiscal year 2018, while 357 closures were due to staff shortages, according to the city.
Still, library advocates contend that without full funding, the Free Library will continue to struggle. The system's current budget is nearly $49 million, and is supported annually through city and state funding and private donations.
Advocates say the city's budget allocation to libraries hasn't recovered since it was slashed by about $8 million in 2008 due to the Great Recession.
Nearly two months ago, library Friends groups kicked off a citywide #FundOurLibraries campaign.
In gatherings across the city since, dozens have joined the campaign for full funding.
Some community members are "asking and expecting our elected officials to put their energy into fixing the problem," said Yvette Hill Robinson, who is on the citywide organizing committee for the campaign and a member of the Overbrook Park friends' group.
"We aren't unaware that resources are limited," she said. "However, it is always a matter of priorities. Who are we prioritizing in this city if we are not fully investing in our libraries?"
Libraries that will extend to six-day service are Blanche A. Nixon/Cobbs Creek; Frankford; Fumo Family; Greater Olney; Haverford; Kensington; Lawncrest; Nicetown-Tioga; Oak Lane; Paschalville; Richmond; and Thomas F. Donatucci Sr.
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.