Northeast Times

Sad chapters for Philly's library system

With a pleth­ora of read­ing ma­ter­i­als and the vir­tu­al world at their fin­ger­tips, Phil­adelphi­ans love their lib­rar­ies, but city budget woes are writ­ing some ter­rible tales of misery.

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Com­pared to lib­rar­ies in oth­er cit­ies, Phil­adelphia’s doesn’t get as much use, doesn’t get a lot of money and serves a pop­u­la­tion that has both a high il­lit­er­acy rate and a low per­cent­age of col­lege grads.

Plus, ac­cord­ing to a study by the re­search arm of the Pew Char­it­able Trusts, the city’s lib­rary sys­tem is burdened by staff short­ages that caused thou­sands of hours of un­sched­uled clos­ings in 2010 and 2011.

Phil­adelphi­ans who were sur­veyed by Pew’s Phil­adelphia Re­search Ini­ti­at­ive said they liked their loc­al lib­rary branches, some say­ing they had such strong re­la­tion­ships with their loc­al lib­rar­i­ans that they saw no need to go else­where in the sys­tem — like the Cent­ral Lib­rary at 19th and Vine streets. And re­search­ers found the sys­tem’s spe­cial pro­grams, which in­clude com­puter train­ing and vis­its by au­thors, are very, very pop­u­lar, draw­ing more than 600,000 people.

Fifty-one per­cent of those Pew sur­veyed said they vis­ited a lib­rary at least once in the past 12 months; 30 per­cent said they went at least once a month. More than 300 of the 1,600 sur­vey re­spond­ents were from the North­east. Fifty-eight per­cent of them said they had been in a lib­rary at least once in the past year; 28 per­cent of them said they go at least once a month.

Fifty-sev­en per­cent of the adult users of the lib­rary went to a lib­rary for In­ter­net ac­cess, and most of them did that at least once a month. That us­age is high­er — 67 per­cent — among those with house­hold in­comes lower than $30,000 an­nu­ally. Forty-nine per­cent of the North­east res­id­ents said they went to lib­rar­ies for In­ter­net ac­cess.

City­wide, 56 per­cent said clos­ing a branch lib­rary would have a “ma­jor im­pact” on their neigh­bor­hoods. They said they would prefer re­duced hours over branch clos­ings.

Few­er North­east Phil­adelphi­ans — 49 per­cent — said a lib­rary branch clos­ing would have a ma­jor im­pact on their neigh­bor­hood, al­though 88 per­cent of the North­east re­spond­ents who iden­ti­fied them­selves as lib­rary pat­rons said they usu­ally go to their loc­al branches rather than the Cent­ral Lib­rary down­town.

Early in his first term, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter had pro­posed per­man­ently shut­ting 11 branches. The clos­ings would have saved about 8 per­cent of the lib­rary’s budget, but a court ordered the plan to be scrapped.

In­stead, the city kicks in less to lib­rary op­er­a­tions. Pew found lib­rary fund­ing has dropped 19 per­cent, which has led to lay­offs, re­duced hours of op­er­a­tions and those un­sched­uled shut­downs be­cause of staff short­ages.

Budget cuts forced lay­offs and lib­rary branches to move from be­ing opened six days a week to five, Siobhan Rear­don, the lib­rary’s dir­ect­or and pres­id­ent, said a few hours after the Pew re­port was re­leased March 7.

“We were not able to hire,” she said, adding there was a massive loss of ser­vice. “There was an in­ab­il­ity to open be­cause we didn’t have the staff to open.”

That res­ul­ted in 8,000 hours of un­sched­uled lib­rary shut­downs in 2010. Last year, those clos­ings were re­duced by more than half.

Rear­don said she re­quires four em­ploy­ees to open a branch, in­clud­ing one city guard, who is both a se­cur­ity and cus­todi­al work­er. In 2011, she said, the lib­rary was able to add more of those guards, and those hir­ings made it pos­sible to cut down the shut­downs.

Phil­adelphia’s lib­rary sys­tem was the only one of more than a dozen urb­an sys­tems stud­ied by Pew that had a prob­lem with chron­ic un­sched­uled lib­rary clos­ings.

As well as talk­ing about the lib­rary to 1,600 city res­id­ents in Janu­ary, Pew’s re­search­ers com­pared the Free Lib­rary of Phil­adelphia’s use, fund­ing and pro­grams to those of 14 oth­er sys­tems, in­clud­ing Bo­ston, Chica­go, Los Angeles and At­lanta.

In its re­port, The Lib­rary in the City: Chan­ging De­mands and a Chal­len­ging Fu­ture, Pew found:

De­mand for lib­rary ser­vices went up as the eco­nomy tanked and money to pay for those ser­vices dropped about 19 per­cent. For ex­ample, the lib­rary is “the de­fault pro­vider for com­puter and In­ter­net ac­cess.”

Still, Phil­adelphi­ans use their lib­rar­ies less than res­id­ents in most of the oth­er urb­an com­munit­ies stud­ied, even though the city has a re­l­at­ively high num­ber of branches per cap­ita.

Vis­its to Phil­adelphia lib­rar­ies grew 11 per­cent from 2005 to 2011, which is less growth than in oth­er towns. Those who did go to the lib­rary bor­rowed few­er than five items a year, which is also less than is bor­rowed in most oth­er sys­tems. A Phil­adelphia lib­rary card own­er can take out much more than five items on each vis­it.

In Phil­adelphia, just 23 per­cent of the people older than 25 are col­lege grads, com­pared to 44 per­cent in Bo­ston and 56 per­cent in Seattle, Wash. Phil­adelphia’s lib­rar­ies get four vis­its per year from res­id­ents. Seattle’s get 11.4, and Bo­ston’s get 5.5, the Pew study found.

Use of lib­rary com­puters has gone up 80 per­cent in the past six years, but the Free Lib­rary of Phil­adelphia ranks 11th of the 15 sys­tems in the num­ber of pub­lic ac­cess com­puters per cap­ita.

Phil­adelphia spent about $43 per res­id­ent on its lib­rar­ies in 2011, which is slightly be­low the av­er­age oth­er cit­ies spent.

The lib­rary’s after-school pro­gram­ming is at­ten­ded by 60,000 chil­dren.

Only about half the branches have Sat­urday hours, and only the Cent­ral Lib­rary and the North­east Re­gion­al Lib­rary have Sunday hours.

On that point, Pew’s re­search­ers found that sys­tems that have Sunday hours get more us­age. One Ohio lib­rary dir­ect­or said, “Sundays are our busiest days.”

Among the sug­ges­tions Pew re­search­ers made is to in­crease week­end branch open­ings. The oth­ers were to make the Cent­ral Lib­rary a more wel­com­ing place, and to se­cure bet­ter sources of money. Some cit­ies, Pew said, are get­ting ded­ic­ated fund­ing for their lib­rar­ies in­stead of budget­ing out of gen­er­al funds, which is what is done in Phil­adelphia. ••

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The book on the lib­rary

Chartered: 1891

Lib­rar­ies: 54. Be­sides the Cent­ral Lib­rary down­town, 49 are small neigh­bor­hood branches, three are re­gion­als and one serves blind and phys­ic­ally han­di­capped pat­rons. One of those re­gion­als and 10 of the branches are in North­east Phil­adelphia.

Col­lec­tion: 4.4 mil­lion, books, e-books, DVDs, magazine sub­scrip­tions. Pew found spend­ing on ma­ter­i­als shrank form $8.6 mil­lion in fisc­al 2008 to $4.8 mil­lion in 2011, a 44 per­cent drop

Lib­rary cards: There are about 460,000, ac­cord­ing to the Free Lib­rary’s own ac­count­ing. That num­ber roughly equals 30 per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion of 1.5 mil­lion. The card is free to just any­body who lives in Pennsylvania. Five thou­sand cards are is­sued an­nu­ally to those who don’t meet that res­id­ency re­quire­ment, said Siobhan Rear­don, the lib­rary’s pres­id­ent and dir­ect­or. The fee is $35.

Pub­lic ac­cess com­puters: 930

Elec­tron­ic data bases: 1,601

Oth­er ser­vices: After-school and sum­mer pro­grams, ca­reer as­sist­ance, com­puter train­ing, free wire­less ac­cess, large scale au­thor events, and space for Eng­lish as a Second Lan­guage pro­grams and lit­er­acy classes. ••

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You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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