At the height of the recession in 2008, Philadelphia found itself in the same position as many metropolitan areas, facing plummeting revenues that forced deep cuts to city budgets. In his proposal for a 2015 city budget, though, Mayor Michael Nutter aims to return moneys to the libraries that were cut so deeply during the recession in the hopes of returning Saturday service to the city’s 39 branches.
The 2009 city budget saw libraries take a nearly 20 percent cut in funding from $41 million annually to just $32 million. While the administration avoided a doomsday scenario that could have seen the closure of branches, all of Philadelphia’s libraries were forced to cut back to five-day-a-week service, save for the Central Branch, which retained seven-day-a-week service.
Since those cuts, the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) libraries have been adding service hours as small budget increases made possible. 2012 saw the system’s three regional libraries return to service six days every week, while a small infusion of cash in 2013 helped 10 city branches restore service Tuesday through Sunday. The new budget proposal, which earmarks nearly $38 million in city funding for FLP, will return all branches overseen by the system to six-day-a-week service, with the exception of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. (The Pennsylvania Governor’s proposed budget also contained a small bit of good news for libraries throughout the state. If passed, it would increase state library funding from $61.1 million to $61.3 million. Though small, it marks the first increase since 2007, when libraries absorbed a 20 percent cut.)
The return to six days of service is a welcome one that will let the system better serve its patrons, FLP director and president Siobhan Reardon told Library Journal. “It’s just better for the community to have six-day service,” Reardon said. “If you’re closed on Saturday, it’s hard for people who work to get to the library.” Those extra hours, and the increased access they give people to Philadelphia’s libraries, will allow FLP to expand its programs in workforce assessment and training and early childhood literacy. The latter is a particularly important service point for FLP as school libraries in the city have fared poorly during the recession.
To help cover those expanded hours, Reardon told Library Journal that FLP will be hiring 43 new full-time library assistants, as well as some new part-time help to cover sick leaves and vacations. The expansion of hours won’t mean the hiring of any new full librarians, though.
Asked about his decision to cut back library hours at the height of the recession in 2008, an uncharacteristically emotional Nutter told reporters at a press conference that the cut had been a particularly hard one to make. “It is the absolute worst decision that I’ve made in the time I’ve been in public office,” Nutter told reporters, pausing to regain his composure. “I have a very deep and personal appreciation for library services. I know what the library did for me, as a kid.”
Nutter’s budget isn’t a done deal yet, however. To fund the infusion of cash into libraries, as well as the city parks and recreation centers that also see a spending increase under the proposal, Nutter will need to push through the controversial sale of city-owned utility Philadelphia Gas Works, a plan that has met with criticism from protesters as well as members of the city council who could put the kibosh on the sale.
Reardon, though, is sanguine that the budget increase will pass, with money to restore library hours intact. After the strain put on libraries by budget cuts, she feels stakeholders have come to appreciate the worth of libraries in a new light, both in Philadelphia and across the country. “It doesn’t matter where you live, libraries are being highly used right now,” she said. “It’s a moment for us that I think we need to appreciate and grab hold of.”