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Fund Philly libraries so that they can be fully staffed | Opinion

Philadelphia's free libraries are too underfunded to do their jobs.

Friends of the Library member Josh Mitchell explains proposed improvements to local branches at a Nov. 3 meeting in North Philadelphia.
Friends of the Library member Josh Mitchell explains proposed improvements to local branches at a Nov. 3 meeting in North Philadelphia.Read moreFriends of the Library

Philadelphia's public library system is in crisis. Our neighborhood Free Library branches have shut their doors earlier than posted hours more than 750 times in 2018, per the latest reports — more than 350 of which came from staffing shortages. Library staff are stretched beyond their capacity everyday to be able to meet patrons' needs while keeping safe buildings open to the public. As a result, community members often encounter libraries with locked doors and canceled programming.

In a city with stagnant poverty and low digital and text literacy, public libraries are more important than ever. They are critical for job seekers without home computers, working parents who rely on their drop-in after-school programs, children and adults seeking safe spaces in severe weather, English language learners, and the vast majority of public school students without school librarians. When branches close, individuals are left without access to the services they rely on.

For several months, Friends of the Free Library members have been organizing across the city to call on Mayor Kenney and City Council to allocate full funding to the library system. We have been examining the Free Library's budget to understand how and why the system has reached a level of underfunding and understaffing so egregious that branches are forced to reduce their hours.

Here is what we found:

In 2008, both the city and state slashed the library's budget by almost 20 percent and have never fully restored the funding. Through the course of our advocacy, Mayor Kenney has told us that funding was restored. We know, however, that with adjustments for inflation and an increasing cost of living, $41 million in 2008 dollars is not the same as $41 million in 2019.

Instead of restoring library funding, the government has actually cut operating funds dramatically. By our estimates, a true restoration to prerecession funding levels would mean a city contribution of more than $8.5 million more toward the 2020 budget than the library received this fiscal year.

Friends members call upon Mayor Kenney and City Council to help us build the library system our city deserves. While the mayor announced a partial hiring campaign for the library on Tuesday, we are extremely concerned that this stop-gap scenario pushes branches to open without any additional funding.

Our libraries need both immediate short-term funding to open all 54 locations six days a week this year and annually reliable funding solutions over many fiscal years to come. Full funding means a drastic increase in the 2020 budget, as well as an infusion of resources in the meantime, which might mean additional overtime support or other creative solutions.

Library Friends work closely with our beloved librarians and support staff. We've seen that a healthy community library isn't built on overworked staff who know their location could close if they have to take an earned sick day.

The Free Library provides transformative programming across the city. Local branches and the central library host cooking programs for kids, classes in English as a second language, and reading tools for the blind and physically disabled; resources for small businesses and individuals interested in starting a business; prison services and support for returning citizens; a citywide summer reading program; one of the largest after-school programs in the city; job fairs; early literacy programs; and much more. All of these programs require staff outside of the neighborhood libraries to plan and implement.

Any reallocation of staff without further funding will mean harmful cuts to library operations from another part of the budget. Philadelphians deserve to have both impactful services and fully staffed neighborhood libraries that are consistently open each week. The fully funded library system we envision does not require a choice between great programming, safe buildings, and open branches.

Fully funding our libraries means investing in education, job training, and cultural programming for entire communities. We are calling on our city officials to step up — by committing the resources that these communities desperately need.

Erica Zurer is a member of Friends of Ramonita de Rodriguez Library. Betty Beaufort is president of Friends of Queen Memorial Library. Both are members of the #fundourlibraries organizing committee.