February 16, 2018

Philadelphia Judge Stops Mayor’s Plan To Close 11 Libraries

By Norman Oder

  • Citizens, union, Council Members sued
  • Judge says Council approval needed
  • Mayor had said at least five branches would become “knowledge centers”

In response to two lawsuits—filed by three City Council Members, seven library patrons, and the library staff union—Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox today put the brakes on Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to permanently close 11 branch libraries at the end of the day tomorrow, saying that City Council approval is required.

City officials argued that a 20-year-old ordinance pointing to the need for Council action conflicts with the city charter, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, but Fox—who held hearings that drew dozens of staunch library supporters—disagreed. She said she’ll issue a written order next week.

It may be tough for Nutter to get Council approval; earlier this month, the Council voted 12-5, urging Nutter to postpone the closures to permit a search for alternatives. However, the city faces a $1 billion budget crunch; the library closing plan would save $8 million.

Court hearing
In court yesterday, plaintiffs testified to the importance of local library branches, though their testimony reinforced the contention that Philadelphia offers more locations than many cities. (The Brooklyn Public Library, for instance, serves nearly 2.5 million people with 58 locations, while Philadelphia serves nearly 1.5 million people with 54 locations.)

However, the number of locations may not matter to some. One resident, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, said her sons were not allowed to walk seven blocks to a more distant library branch because it was too dangerous. The newspaper described the courtroom as so packed with library supporters that some sat on the floor and in the jury box. 

While library supporters gained ground when a plaintiff was asked if Barnes & Noble and wi-fi at Starbucks could replace library service, they also lost some ground when the Rev. Terrence Griffith, vice president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity, criticized the closures but acknowledged that he doesn’t use a library.

Saving five branches?
On Monday, offering some balm to his critics, Nutter said that five branches slated for closure would instead be run by private nonprofit or business groups, converted into community “knowledge centers.” According to the Inquirer, he did not identify the branches but said they likely would keep their book collections and computers—but not before being closed for an indefinite period..

While Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library, said “It’s a way to keep library doors open,” Nutter was heckled by dozens of protesters at a news conference. He also said that after-school programs at the 11 libraries would be moved to other city buildings nearby.

Public resistance
In concert with the Friends group, the ad hoc Coalition to Save the Libraries has organized rallies, held a “People’s Indictment” of the mayor, and scheduled now-moot Candlelight Farewell Vigils at libraries slated for closure. One member of the Coalition, Amirah Naim, even wrote LJ requesting that the 2005 Politician of the Year award won by Nutter be rescinded.

The planned library closures have generated much discussion. Inquirer columnist Daniel Rubin, for example, wrote that the $10 million owed the city by the Philadelphia Eagles “could spare the libraries,” then reconsidered, recognizing that the football team says it lost $7.8 million when a 2001 preseason game was canceled because of dangerous artificial turf at the stadium, owned by the city. 

“One number keeps coming back to me: $7.8 million for a preseason game,” Rubin concluded. “Sounds like a perfect opportunity for a benefit. They could call it the Library Bowl.”

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