By Amy Dougherty

It's clear that Philadelphians love their libraries. Now they have a historic opportunity to shape their future.

The timing is good. As the city struggles with the economic downturn, low high school graduation rates, and high levels of illiteracy and poverty, the Free Library of Philadelphia is embarking on a strategic planning process, and Mayor Nutter is looking to rebuild the system in the not-too-distant future.

That's why the mayor and the library system have joined forces with the Friends of the Free Library to host a series of "Libraries of the Future" public forums.

The Free Library, Nutter, and the Friends want citizens to imagine a properly funded, vibrant library system in which libraries are regarded as a necessity for all kinds of people: preschoolers, students, teens, parents, seniors, scholars, immigrants, entrepreneurs, and especially the city's disadvantaged - the 25 percent of us who live in poverty, and the 50 percent who lack computer access at home.

A recently released Gates Foundation report, "Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries," shows how computer technology pervades daily life and affects Americans' use of their public libraries. The report documents in detail how libraries have become "silent partners in workforce development, educational achievement, health information, and bringing government services to citizens."

What does this mean for our city? Philadelphians are invited to answer that question by taking part in these public forums, where they can tell us how they use their library branches and how they could be improved. Participants will be asked to work together to develop a vision of their ideal library of the future.

The goal is a positive, productive environment for citizens to converse with their neighbors and take an active role in planning the future of the Free Library and, indeed, our city.

We encourage all interested residents to attend any of the forums scheduled throughout the city. The next one is from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Enterprise Center, 4548 Market St. Subsequent forums, also from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m., are scheduled for June 2 at the Perzel Community Center, 2990 St. Vincent St., and June 9 at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, 6100 Stenton Ave.

Amy Dougherty is executive director of Friends of the Free Library. She can be reached at adougherty@libraryfriends.info. For more information about the Libraries of the Future forums, see www.libraryfriends.info or www.freelibrary.org, or call 215-567-4562.