President and Director,
Free Library of Philadelphia
She engineered the creation of an ambitious, five-year strategic plan, underpinned by a powerful mission to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity through the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Siobhan A. Reardon had been in the director’s chair for less than a month when FLP was handed a 20 percent cut and branch hours were drastically reduced. Library state funding was slashed by 34 percent. In 2010, with funding trickling back into the budget, FLP launched a two-year process to formalize a new strategic plan. “We agreed that we had to stop trying to be all things to all people; we just didn’t have the money,” Reardon says.
Instead, her plan refocused the role of the library, identifying five target populations (job seekers, entrepreneurs, new Americans, children under five, and people with disabilities). The plan outlines a cluster model to streamline and enhance neighborhood library services, share resources and staff among neighborhood libraries, and collaborate with community leaders to develop programs and services most needed by residents.
Reardon restructured the 800-member staff to achieve that goal and to improve efficiencies, internal communications, and patron experience, while creating critical new positions such as a digital resource specialist. Those achievements alone could qualify Reardon, the first woman to serve as president and director of FLP, to be named the LJ 2015 Librarian of the Year, sponsored by Baker & Taylor, but she has achieved much more in a short tenure that is marking a turnaround for this important but embattled library.
From global to local
“She is disciplined, organized and out in the community…. She is a force of nature…with a smile and an insistent, driving personality,” says Bob Heim, chair of the 22-member FLP Board of Trustees.
“We had many applicants to direct FLP from many of the largest, most important libraries in the country. We were impressed with many of them,” says Heim, describing the ten-member search committee’s discovery of Reardon. Reardon had visited some branches and arrived for the interview with insights. She also brought an expansive view.
“ ‘What are the great libraries of this country doing?’ asked a member of the committee,” recalls Heim. “ ‘I’ll tell you what many of them that impress me are doing, but you should really ask what the great libraries of the world are doing. So let me talk a bit about that as well,’ she replied.” She was the only candidate to give “FLP a global dimension.”
A developing collaboration
Reardon spearheads FLP’s multiphase, multifaceted initiative and innovative model for the future of library service, entitled “Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative.” It aims to specify FLP’s changing role in contemporary society by transforming the system physically and programmatically, with the strong support of local political and philanthropic leaders.
According to Reardon, the process of developing the model began when Mayor Michael Nutter allocated $4.5 million to begin upgrading the city’s neighborhood libraries. Nutter, who along with Frank DiCicco was named LJ Politician of the Year in 2005 for their efforts as city councilmen on behalf of neighborhood libraries, wanted the money matched by private donors. In the end, it has been much more than matched by many generous gifts in a partnership between the public and private sectors. That giving hit a high in 2014 with a historic $25 million gift from the William Penn Foundation—the largest private gift ever received by the library.
The FLP breakthrough came after a couple of tough years for Reardon. Money was short, and innovations and changes were stuck.
“Fundraising wasn’t always a strength of mine,” says Reardon. “We had a very nice relationship with the people who manage the Penn Foundation. We were beginning the reorganization into the clusters and into the new management structure. So we actually began quietly, and they got more excited about what we were doing about the physical renovation and the succession planning aspect of our reorganization. They were jazzed by what they heard.”
The foundation liked the way FLP connected the neighborhood libraries with the schools and pre-K literacy, and it liked the central library renovation and the parkway stacks project.
“We were looking for substantial money,” says Reardon. “When [Penn] came back and said we will give the library system $25 million, we were very happy—$18 million goes to the neighborhood libraries and especially to the reconstruction of five [branches] as well as the development of the cluster model.”
“We’re doing it wrong!”
According to board chair Heim, fundraising for the program to build an extension on the back of the central library took a bad turn around 2008, when the recession hit. That’s when Reardon was just arriving.
“A lot of people of some means from the community (including the FLP trustees and the board members of the FLP Foundation) had put the plan together,” says Heim.
“Two years later, Reardon came before both boards one morning and said, ‘I think we’re doing this the wrong way. By focusing on raising the total sum of money, we’re ignoring doing some things that we should be doing right now. I think we should phase in improvements to both the central branch and the neighborhood libraries,’ ” Heim reports, adding, “She persuaded everybody that she was right, and it has made a huge difference. We revamped our approach and decided to do the project on a piecemeal basis…. By taking this approach, we have not only made substantial improvements, but we have been able to engage a number of important foundations in the city that have been willing to…provide the funding we needed.”
The cluster model
As part of the transformation, Reardon created FLP’s cluster model of operation. In a city dominated by its neighborhoods, the cluster model allows FLP to serve on a hyperlocal level.
“We didn’t cluster all at once. We started in North Philadelphia, an economically depressed part of the city. In March 2014, we declared victory on the cluster pilot. We are now fitting it to two more clusters, and we will get those up and running soon,” Reardon says.
According to Reardon, the cluster idea came from her experience at the Brooklyn Public Library. It means every neighborhood has experts, like a children’s librarian, because the cluster shares staff. The cluster model features groupings of neighborhood libraries that each have different specialties, such as health information, family literacy, services for New Americans, and small businesses and entrepreneurs. These libraries share staff and expertise. Clusters are “a good way to operate when you are short of money, and we will be short of money forever,” says Reardon. “If you work in a municipally funded organization, you have to be flexible, and you have to learn how to get the most flexibility with the limited amount of dollars you have.”
To close the gaps, Reardon turns to the library foundation. “We are very fortunate because we have a foundation. If there is an initiative that needs good funding, I can approach the foundation,” says Reardon. “[It] raises about $10 million a year.”
Helping staff step up
Key to the cluster approach has been empowering the community libraries, Reardon notes, and bringing in Mary Parkinson to head the pilot. “I worked with Mary to push decision-making down. We had to be sure that the branch librarians—we call them neighborhood library leaders—were making operating and staff decisions,” Reardon says.
“The cluster leader has to be a star and think very differently about the kinds of services that are actually needed in these communities. They have to take our work really local, and we have to spend a lot of time getting the staff used to the model. Then the cluster leader has to assemble a community council from local businesses, community-based organizations, police, schools, and all that relates to the health of the neighborhood,” says Reardon. “It is a completely new management style for Philly.”
The clusters also affect what is happening in the city around succession planning in light of an aggressive retirement plan. “The retirement plan in Philadelphia has meant a loss of people. When important people leave important jobs, I have to ramp up a lot of talent fast and quickly understand who is strong and where they are,” Reardon says. “Traditional cluster leaders moved staff around. Now their job is focused externally on community outreach and development,” she adds. “I have this pool of young librarians, and when you give them their wings, they want to fly. That is exactly what is happening in the clusters. You have to leave them alone to do the work they have to do.”
New public space
Reardon has spurred long-awaited change at the Central Library as well as at the branches. “Reardon’s courageous decision to dismantle the closed stacks, providing 45,000 square feet of new public space in the Beaux Arts Central Library, transformed the timing, funding, and work of a plan that had languished for more than a decade,” says Tobey Gordon Dichter, who chairs the 44-member Board of Directors of the FLP Foundation.
“Our stacks are not attached to the building, and we can deconstruct them. We have already moved most of the material to off-site storage ten minutes away at the University of Pennsylvania’s new innovation campus. It is exciting for us to have a presence there,” Reardon says. “We are building offices there for scholars so they can work in that space with the materials.”
In 2014, the FLP Foundation, which Reardon also directs, merged with the renowned Rosenbach Museum & Library. The FLP and Rosenbach rare book collections were both developed by the great rare book man A.S.W. Rosenbach himself. The Rosenbach Foundation, which has a separate rare book and museum facility, combined assets in finance, human resources, and external affairs with the FLP Foundation.
Reardon has led the library’s efforts to move beyond its walls by creating computer and Internet outposts called hot spots that offer free technology access and training in partnership with local organizations in underserved neighborhoods, the city’s first roving “techmobile,” and a partnership with the Philadelphia International Airport, where travelers can enjoy free Wi-Fi and download library materials on the go. In a city where more than 40 percent of the population lack an Internet connection at home, Reardon’s efforts helped bridge the city’s digital divide. FLP now boasts seven hot spots, 54 physical buildings, and the University of Pennsylvania facility.
“We are building a commons for civic engagement and a business research and innovation center…to work with health-care workers, small businesses, and many others,” Reardon adds.
FLP is also out front on the trend of kitchens in libraries. “One of my new babies is the Culinary Literacy Center,” says Reardon. “We built a demonstration kitchen facility…to help with literacy issues. Nothing is more literacy based than cooking. It is all basic literacy, math, and science. It is tactile learning, and it is social.”
Mentors and milestones
After a decade of working on the budgets and finances of private sector firms, in 1988 Reardon took her first library job as a budget analyst for the branch system of the New York Public Library (NYPL). Ultimately, as senior budget analyst and manager of the budget and planning for the branches, she reported to the now-legendary head of that side of NYPL, Edwin Holmgren. Reardon had been noticed by Bernice MacDonald, who was known for decades as a leader who could spot and move talented librarians ahead. Both Holmgren and MacDonald became her mentors.
In 1996, Reardon moved on to serve as director of finance for the Brooklyn Public Library with Executive Director Ginnie Cooper, who recently retired from her next post as head of the District of Columbia Public Library. It was Cooper, another Reardon mentor, who encouraged her to get her MLS.
Moving on from Brooklyn in 2005, Reardon became executive director of the Westchester Library System, a 38-member cooperative library system in the affluent New York City suburbs. She became president and director of FLP in 2008. Reardon is an endowment trustee of the American Library Association, a member of the Standing Committee of the Metropolitan Libraries Caucus of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and past chair of LYRASIS, a library services organization. She also sits on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and serves as the secretary for the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children and the chair for the Parkway Council Foundation.
“Siobhan Reardon models external focus and is never content to duplicate yesterday’s achievements,” says FLP Foundation board chair Dichter.
“For somebody who has been here for only six years, it is amazing how she has penetrated the Philadelphia community. She is on many boards, everyone knows her, the mayor, the city council,” says FLP trustee chair Heim.
In her own words
A sampling of Reardon’s philosophy provides the best evidence of the qualities that made her LJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year.
On library spaces: “We stopped talking about the stuff, the collection. The space has to be attractive, the interaction has to be attractive, and the programming has to be attractive.
“We’ll need much more flexible spaces, much more casual spaces for teens, lovelier, softer, socially engaging spaces. People learn noisily now.”
On staffing: “I look for people with that real understanding that our work is in the community and is not that kind of passive work we’ve been doing for so long.
“I like big ideas…. I like a willingness to take risks. We have adopted a philosophy around risk and that took a lot of time….
“I want people who are agile at the human interaction. It is about knowing when somebody needs help and how you identify assistance.”
On now: “I’m proudest that I came out the other side after a difficult two and a half years,” Reardon notes. “Once we had the strategic plan in place, life became fun. Now that it is all coming to pass it is exciting.”
Indeed, we are moved to celebrate these transformative ideas from that “force of nature,” Siobhan A. Reardon.