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. ••
The book on the library
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. ••EndFragment EndFragment