March 17, 2018

Pew: Philadelphia Free Library Should Get Back to Basics

A recent Pew report comparing Philadelphia’s Free Library to 14 other urban library systems concluded that the Philadelphia system should refocus on users’ top priorities. That means prioritizing providing a safe, educational place for children, a quiet space for reading, health information, job seeking resources, a connection to government services and access to the Internet – potentially at the expense of things like maintaining special collections. Free Library Board member Peter Benoliel said he and is colleagues must ask, “Is this collection the right collection for us? Is there some other place that might be more appropriate? … If we didn’t have to maintain them and curate them and exhibit them, that would be a loss to our institution, but would it allow us to move forward in a higher priority direction?”

The report also concluded that the Free Library should re-evaluate branch hours; continue to streamline its complicated, two-board governing structure; do more to promote literacy; and make the main library more welcoming.

Achieving these goals, of course, depends on the report’s final recommendation: securing sustainable funding. At $43 per resident in 2011, Philadelphia’s library spending is slightly below the average. Between 2008 and 2010  the Free Library experienced larger cutbacks than many counterparts, with staff size down 14 percent, scheduled service hours down 12 percent, and contributions from all levels of government down 19 percent. During that period, city funding of the library declined by a larger percentage than did overall city spending.

The study found that the Free Library is below average in circulation and visits, though it ranks relatively high in terms of branches per capita. Demographics is a contributing factor – the more education a person has, the more likely they are to use libraries, and only 23 percent of Philly’s adults over 25 are college graduates, while another 22 lack basic literacy skills.

Opening Hours

However when the library is open is also a big factor in how many people go there. Weekend hours correlate with higher than average usage, the study found. ““Many customers who need access to our materials and services simply cannot visit us on weekdays,” said Sari Feldman, former president of the Public Library Association. Philadelphia only has Sunday hours at two branches and Saturday hours at about half.

Even worse, the library often isn’t open in practice even when it should be in theory. Unscheduled closings caused by staff shortages, which are in turn caused by budget cuts, rose to 8,000 hours in 2010. Since then Philadelphia has more than halved closures to 3,662 hours, with less than half due to staffing, by hiring additional security guards and changing branch schedules. But there is still more work to be done. “We could bring 10 libraries down to four-day-a-week schedules [from the current five] and eliminate this problem, but create inequities in branch schedules,” explained Free Library President and Director Siobhan Reardon. “The current five-day schedule is how we maintain an equitable system.”

Libraries Matter

Less use than other cities doesn’t mean the library isn’t important to Philadelphians, however.

Fifty-six percent of residents and 67 percent of library users say that closing their local branch library would have a “major impact” on the neighborhood. (Philadelphians would rather see reductions in hours than branch closings). Fifty-one percent of respondents said they visited a library at least once in the past year, and 30 percent went at least once a month, according to the Philadelphia Research Initiative’s recent survey of 1,600 city residents. Library usage was highest among African Americans, people between the ages of 35 and 49 and college graduates. No significant difference in library use across was found across the income scale. Geography, however, did make a difference, with Northwest Philadelphia topping the charts.

As to what they did at the library of adult users, 79 percent checked out library material in the past year; 34 percent got health information; 29 percent looked for jobs; 23 percent applied for government services or benefits; and 18 percent studied for a test, such as the GED. The Pew report quoted Carol Barta, a librarian in the Holmesburg branch of the Free Library, as saying, “Today, computers are a barrier to entry into the workforce. I don’t know what our patrons would do without our computers. At least once a day, I’m helping someone apply for a job.”

Kids in the Library

Among library users, 57 percent report having taken a child to the library. Ninety-one percent say the library’s role as a safe space for children is a “very important” function, and thirty-seven percent of library cardholders are children. One reason Philadelphians emphasize the role of the public library in educating children may be that it’s the only library to do so: fewer than half of Philadelphia’s schools have a school library. Of those that do, fewer than 60 percent are staffed by a librarian or even a library assistant, according to Lois McGee of the School District’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

Computing Power

“Several hundred thousand Philadelphians lack access to the Internet, and more and more of them have come to rely on the library to provide it,” the report said. Some 57 percent of library users said they used a computer to access the Internet, and most did so at least once a month. Some 22 percent received assistance in learning how to use a computer. Blacks are more likely to use library computers than whites, 64 percent to 46 percent; people with high school educations or less are more likely to use them than college graduates, 62 percent to 43 percent; and people with household incomes under $30,000 are more apt to use them than those in the $100,000-plus category, 67 percent to 37 percent. Younger Philadelphians use the computers more than older residents.

Use of library computers in Philadelphia has risen 80 percent in the last six years; the Free Library ranks 11th of the 15 systems in the number of public-access computers per capita.

Digital downloads, however, remain a very small, though rapidly growing, part of the library’s usage pattern. “Officials at the Free Library of Philadelphia call their Web site the system’s second-largest branch—because it gets more visits than any building other than Parkway Central,” the report said. Nonetheless, digital downloads are less than 1 percent of the resources used by patrons, in Philadelphia as in all the cities studied except Boston, Seattle and Chicago. Philadelphia recently debuted a pilot program in which individuals age 50 and older who attend a class on using e-readers can then borrow them from the library for two weeks.

Programs are Popular

The report commended Philadelphia’s programming, which include storytime for children, resumé  assistance, and high-profile speaker series. On a per capita basis, program attendance in Philadelphia, which was 639,049 in 2011, exceeds the average of the other systems studied by nearly 50 percent.

The report also cited LEAP, a free after-school program attended by more than 60,000 children in 2011, and the Hot Spots program, which sets up library-staffed computer labs inside facilities owned or operated by community organizations in areas where few people have library cards, and rates of Internet access are low. At the six hot spots, computers open to the library home page and users can access the library’s collections of databases and electronic materials without a library card. Each hot spot also contains a small collection of reference books.

Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program director for the Knight Foundation, which helps fund the hot spots, said, “If you’re low-literate, you’re not likely to go to the library. But you trust your church and your community center. So why not set up [library] outposts in those places that you trust and frequent?”A hot-spot van outfitted with tablet computers and laptops to travel the city is in the works for 2012.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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