A fight to increase funding for the Free Library of Philadelphia has officially breached the walls of City Hall and the Mayor’s Office.
On Dec. 12, Free Library staff members and supporters gathered for a rally at Broad and Market streets and delivered 5,000-signature petitions to the offices of Mayor Jim Kenney and each of the 17 City Council members.
It was the most public demonstration library advocates have held since Saturday hours were slashed at more than half of the city’s library branches earlier this year.
The cuts, which library officials attributed to staffing shortages, resulted in an outcry from librarians and their backers. Since October, a group called Friends of the Free Library has been organizing meetings and calling for the city to step up its financial contribution.
Advocates have argued that funding for the Free Library has not been restored since cutbacks 10 years ago that were a result of the Great Recession. In an analysis presented at the rally, the Friends group said the Free Library’s funding is down 17 percent compared to the 2008 budget when adjusted for inflation.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
Kenney’s office said the city has restored funding to pre-recession levels and has also invested millions of dollars in improving libraries through the Rebuild program, which is mostly funded by the soda tax.
Last month, the administration announced that an additional 12 branches, including Frankford and Lawncrest, will be able to open on Saturdays by the end of the year using existing funds.
“We look forward to exploring all departments’ budgetary needs during the upcoming budget cycle, however, we also remain focused on ways to improve our staffing patterns and management systems to be as efficient and accessible to the public as possible with existing resources,” the Mayor’s Office said in a statement.
Friends of the Free Library’s analysis argues the city needs to increase its contribution to the library system by about $8.5 million (to $49.7 million) just to restore 2008 funding levels — and even that boost is not enough to fully staff the system, advocates said.
“Reallocation of existing funds is not a solution,” Center City librarian Erin Hoopes said at the rally. “We are already stretched to our breaking points.”
A shortage of librarians and other staff members have forced branches to unexpectedly close more than 750 times citywide so far this year, according to information distributed by the Friends group.
Diane Miller, who attended the rally, said she notices the staffing issues when she visits the Bustleton Library.
“Right now, we’re down to like bare-bones (staffing),” she said. “When we go into the library, it just seems like there’s not that many staff for one reason or another.”
Children used to come to the Holmesburg Library on Saturday to do their homework, according to Donna Carcel. The schedule reductions, which affected six libraries in the Northeast, brought that to an end.
Now, if kids or other people without cars want to go to the library on the weekend, they have to take the bus, said Carcel, president of Friends of Holmesburg Library.
“With the library being closed on Saturday, overall it just hurts the community,” Carcel said. “It’s not convenient. It’s really not a great situation for anyone.”
Libraries aren’t just about renting books, several supporters noted. It’s more about the programs and events the branches offer to bring people together and create a “library experience,” said Linda Colwell-Smith, head of the Friends of Torresdale Library.
“They’re looking for quality free programming for their children and for their families — and for themselves,” Colwell-Smith said. ••
For a full schedule of library hours and to see which branches on open on the weekends, visit www.freelibrary.org
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org