Free Library of Philadelphia backers call for $30 million increase

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Councilwoman Helen Gym speaks Monday, March 28, at an event to rally support for increase library funding.
Jack Tomczuk

Free Library of Philadelphia employees and supporters gathered Monday ahead of Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget address to rally for a $30 million boost in funding for the library system — which would amount to a 70% increase.

Organizers said the library system has been plagued by closures due to staffing shortages and building issues.

“In many branches, one call-out can force a location to close,” said librarian Arrick Underhill, acting branch manager at the Cecil B. Moore Library in North Philadelphia.

“The cognitive dissonance between renaming the library in honor of a Civil Rights icon while denying funding for this basic community resource for decades makes it all the more infuriating how neglected this library has been,” he added.

As of Monday, at least 19 branch locations were closed unexpectedly or had shortened hours, according to the Free Library’s website.

Across the system, branches are currently opening an average of three-and-a-half days a week, according to Linda Colwell Smith, co-chair of the Friends of the Free Library, an organization that pushes for increased library funding.

Free Library of Philadelphia supporters and employees rallied Monday, March 28. Jack Tomczuk

Adding $30 million to the Free Library’s budget would allow the system’s 50-plus branches to open six days a week year-round with full staffing, advocates said.

For the current fiscal year, the city allotted $42.8 million to the Free Library, an 8% increase from the prior budget but still about $3 million less than the 2020 spending plan, which was adopted before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2008, the Free Library’s funding has decreased 26% when adjusted for inflation, and the number of library workers has dipped from 1,131 in 2009 to 761 currently, according to the Friends group.

“This is a different City Council,” Councilwoman Helen Gym said at the rally. “We are never going to choose austerity at a time when our young people, especially, and our communities and neighborhoods, are crying out for help.”

Gym was flanked by council members Isaiah Thomas, Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks and Derek Green. They painted funding for the Free Library as an anti-violence measure, at a time when Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented level of homicides and shootings.

“It is no coincidence that we saw such dramatic spikes in gun violence when our neighborhoods were cut off from virtually every resource they had access to,” Gauthier told the crowd.

Jay McCue, a Free Library of Philadelphia employee, speaks at an event to rally support for increase library funding. Jack Tomczuk

Just as the library rally outside City Hall was ending, Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke, the two top negotiators in budget talks, were announcing the launch of a new 24/7 gun violence hotline.

By calling 211, those at risk of committing violence and residents of high-crime neighborhoods will be able to get real-time support, officials said.

Sarah Peterson, a spokesperson for Kenney’s office, said in an email that “the administration has worked closely with the new director of the Free Library, Kelly Richards, to develop a budget that supports our shared vision for a system: a network of libraries that is responsive to community needs, dedicated to equity and well-resourced.”

Kenney is set to present his budget proposal Thursday to council, which will hold a series of hearings on the plan over the next few months. Both sides must reach an agreement by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

Metro is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

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