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What in the Heck is Wrong with Philadelphia?

Just what is going on in Philadelphia? The Library Link of the Day yesterday was to this article from Philly. The Philadelphia Free Library has announced that it’s going to close all of its branches on October 2 if the city doesn’t get more money from the state. The system has something like 50 branches. I actually like the way they frame the closing, since they start listing all the services that people aren’t going to get. In some ways it’s a good strategy to put the value of the library directly to the citizens of Philadelphia.

But it seems clear that the libraries aren’t the problem, since the mayor of Philly has targeted lots of other city services to go under his "doomsday budget." From the article: "Besides closing libraries, the Nutter administration’s so-called Plan C doomsday budget includes eliminating court-system funding, shutting down all recreation centers and laying off up to 3,000 workers, including police and firefighters."

From the outside, one can only look at this and say, "What in the hell is that guy thinking?!" What does it mean to "eliminate court system funding," for example? Does it mean that they would no longer arrest and try criminals, which would be harder to catch anyway if they get rid of the police? Or does it just mean that the poor schmucks they do manage to catch will have to represent themselves in court because the city won’t provide public attorneys? Is that last part even legal?

The whole scenario just seems bizarre. No other city in the country seems to be having these kinds of problems, despite the recession. The mayor and hence the library advocacy implies that this is some problem of the state. If the state doesn’t allow a "temporary" (uh-huh) sales tax hike and a 2-year suspension of paying into the city retirement fund, then the mayor will shut the city down. This kind of behavior has a name; it’s called blackmail. "Give us money or we will kill your city." Except in this case the mayor would be killing his own city.

What I can’t figure out from the news is what’s really going on, though. Surely some readers out there have some insight into this mess. The problem seems like a combination of severe fiscal mismanagement combined with a complete disregard for the needs of the citizens of Philadelphia. Is that the case, though? Is this an incompetent administration holding a city hostage? Or does the mayor just not like libraries? That might be the case, since surely one could close most of the 50+ branches of the Free Library without closing them all.

Or maybe he knows that generally people like libraries, so threatening to close them all is a way for him to rally public support for his blackmail scheme against the state. That would be even more cynical and disreputable.

Or is it that the libraries are the worst offenders when it comes to spending city money, so closing them will save everything else? Are the libraries at fault here? Are the librarians all living large at the expense of the public, smoking fat cigars and drinking expensive champagne and telling the library patrons they can all just eat cake?

I’d like to know the truth, because it seems to me that a cynical mayor is trying to blackmail the state by holding libraries hostage. Philadelphia used to have an atmosphere of learning and education, with Benjamin Franklin there either founding or helping other people found everything from the first public library and the American Philosophical Society to the University of Pennsylvania and the United States of America. Now it looks like it might be known as the first major city to destroy its libraries. That’s quite a legacy for just one mayor to leave. Maybe they can close down the schools and museums next, or sell the Liberty Bell to the Chinese and just shut down the city.



  1. i live in PA. our state is in a budget impasse. the budget, which was supposed to be passed by july 1, still has not been approved. our governor’s budget proposal slashed funding for the state library in harrisburg by 50%. he also slashed funding for public libraries across the state by a significant amount as well ( i forget exact numbers). the irony is that our governor was once the mayor of philadelphia, home of the nation’s first library. i am not sure of all the particulars with regard to philadelphia’s budget woes but i do know our state is in a mess with this budget impasse. now we have a fight between a former phila. mayor and a current one, neither of which seem to have any sense of the importance of public libraries especially in hard economic times (let alone what you list with regard to other city services). i love to visit philadelphia but it is a poorly run city and has been for a long time. rendell and nutter both need to be thrown out of office.

  2. This blog from the Philadelphia Daily News has realistic commentary on the city and its budget. Remember the rest of Penna is hit pretty hard too. Used to be I could be witty about our patrons. Now it’s too sad. We see folks doing everything right and still struggling, and thats in a suburban library.

  3. I just moved to Philly (and work at a library near the central branch of the Free Library) and from what I can tell, the city is trying to raise the sales tax and do some funky math with pension plans in order to raise money to seal the budget gap. We need approval from the State in order to pass those proposals, so until that approval comes, we have to operate under Plan C, which includes closing the libraries. No one has explained what the court funding would entail. Supposedly, pink slips should be going out on Friday to city workers. I anticipate things will get more messy then.

  4. learning librarian says:

    “lime commented:

    …our state is in a budget impasse. the budget, which was supposed to be passed by july 1, still has not been approved. our governor’s budget proposal slashed funding for the state library in harrisburg by 50%. he also slashed funding for public libraries across the state by a significant amount as well ( i forget exact numbers).”

    I also live in PA. The current budget proposal (which Rendell has said he will veto) cuts state library funding by 34%. As others have said, the state is a mess, Philly’s a mess, and libraries are all expecting the worse. I don’t know if the Philly libraries are working with the mayor on this, but I do know that the two library systems I’m affiliated with are both lobbying as hard as they can (and considering desperate measures) to get more funding in the state budget.

  5. Former Urban Director says:

    The whole city of Philadelphia is being held hostage, along with the budget, by the legislature and governor. It is bad enough that there is no state budget, but the largest city in the state is being “punished” by the suburban and rural legislators. This is not unheard of and happens regularly in other states (Connecticut has had urban/suburban clashes, as has Wisconsin, Louisiana, California. Illinois is noted for the downstate/upstate split…)

  6. Philadelphian says:

    Additionally, the Philadelphia city budget (like many other cities, and quite unlike our federal government) must be balanced every year. So the recession really crimped a lot of the existent funding. The state budget includes money for Philadelphia, but obviously until the budget is passed the city money will not be “real” so this “Plan C” will have to exist in the interim. It is both a scare tactic and a necessity (although not in its particulars, only in the huge amounts of cuts required).

  7. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    “From the outside, one can only look at this and say, “What in the hell is that guy thinking?!” Heck, I’ve been asking this very same question for over a year now. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Nutter, doesn’t really think!

  8. Benjamin Franklin says:

    What’s wrong with Philadelphia?

    What the first commenter said: it’s in Pennsylvania. State library staff cut in by by way of furloughs; days open cut from 6 to 3 per week; no more weekend or evening hours; etc., etc. And they’re literally across the street from the capital building!

    Current state ‘compromise’ budget under discussion again targets libraries. This time the inter-library borrowing and the state-wide databases contract are on the chopping block.

    What’s wrong with Philadelphia? It’s in Pennsylvania.

  9. another f-ing librarian says:

    hm. mayor nutter could threaten to fire *himself*, but i doubt that would whip people nationwide into the same kind of froth.

  10. But Bernanke says we’re out of the “recession”. Hmmm … Liar, liar, pants on fire!

  11. Guess all the money is going to help out the greedy corporatist banksters, and not our poor public libraries.

  12. Minnesota also suffers from the urban/suburban clashes. It’s one of the reasons why the Mpls PL found itself in such a financial mess (not the only reason) and had to “merge” with the suburban system.

  13. Dan Kleinman of says:

    This is a library tactic. In Illinois, one house has already passed a bill to require Internet filtering in public libraries, the other house was was going to pass it, and the governor said he would sign it. To the rescue came the Illinois Library Association. It organized a fake protest in which it ordered public libraries to either turn off computers for a day or purposefully turn up existing filters to full bore. Then patrons were instructed to call politicians to call off the law. It didn’t work, but the ILA did get to a single legislator who had the power to bottle the bill up in conference and thwart the will of the entire state.

    “On May 8th, the Illinois Library Association (ILA) issued an ‘action request’ calling for a coordinated protest against the Internet filtering bill, HB 1727, recommending that all public libraries in the state to obstruct Internet access on Monday, May 14th.”

    See, for example, “IFI News Release: Illinois Librarians Fight Porn Filters With Internet Shutdown” at

    “The ALA and the ILA, in their protest of HB 1727, are not only wildly exaggerating the effects of Internet filtering with this stunt, but are outright misleading the public about the bill’s intent. A main ALA argument is that filtering technology doesn’t work. Yet experts agree that filters are about 95% effective in blocking unwanted sites, while providing full access to legitimate websites.”

  14. ConfusedByItAll says:

    re: safe Libraries post:

    So I’m just starting out my MLIS schooling, and had to research Mary Lee Bundy. While she was of a different political persuasion, I am invigorated by the thought that a single person can influence/change an industry. I want to do that to get some sense (read:stop embracing porn and smut) back into the ALA.
    One person can make a difference, and I think the best way to fight people like Krug, or whatever her name is, is from the inside. I want to be that person. Any hope, or do I have no chance? And no, I’m not kidding…

  15. I Like Books says:

    This goes way beyond Philly, but it seems to be that the first thing government can do to fight a recession is to keep their own people working. (Some would view that situation as a great time to whittle down government a bit, and I respect that opinion. But that’s another argument.) However, short of going into debt (which is illegal in many state constitutions), the only way to do that is to have cash reserves banked up and available to spend. But building cash reserves is impossible, because the moment a surplus is detected, the money can’t be distributed fast enough, whether by spending or refunds.

    There’s plenty of valid finger pointing at bankers, deregulation, unwise home buyers, the Chinese, etc. But, suppose someone has a mortgage and other bills to pay, and loses his job, what’s he supposed to do next month? Pay his bills! Draw from his savings and keep the money going! Oh, he can’t do that, because the average savings rate in America dropped to zero! Time to hit up the government for relief at a time when tax revenues are at their lowest.

    I’ve come to a new understanding of savings because of this recession. It has personal benefits, sure, but I’ve also come to see it as a civic duty. It would slow the drop into recession and lower its impact. Where would Philly be if pretty much everyone in the state could keep paying their loans, if banks didn’t fail, if people still with jobs didn’t cut spending because they feared sudden death if they were axed? Economists complain now that the new savings ethic (which is still a fraction of what it used to be) will slow recovery, but it still has to happen.

  16. I like books: Can’t save what you don’t have.

  17. About time the Commonwealth of PA finally passed a budget! At the least the library is safe.

  18. I Like Books says:

    Some people get screwed. But before the financial crisis hit we had a national savings rate of about zero. Not EVERYONE didn’t have it to save! And there are more people screwed now than there could have been.

    I’ve known people living one paycheck away from disaster who continue the cable, NetFlix, and two cell phones, buy the new firearms and electronic toys, and otherwise seem determined not to save it when they can. Different people are in different situations, and not all of them were dragged powerlessly to their fate.

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