Libraries in a bind

For 20 years, Marilyn Barr has found fulfillment as a librarian in South Philly.

Now a library supervisor for the Fumo Family Branch, 2437 S. Broad St., she takes pride in assisting the array of students who utilize her branch’s daily programs and resources.

Under the pared-down city budget that Mayor John Street announced Tuesday, Barr will have to give up her post for a lesser position.

But that is the least of her worries.

The librarian is far more troubled by how a planned reduction in library operating hours could affect local youths.

"I just feel so bad for these schools that come to depend on this as part of learning, part of their curriculum, especially preschoolers because this is the beginning of their learning," said Barr, from Chestnut Hill.

On Jan. 14, the Street administration sent 200 layoff notices to city employees in 20 departments. Four library administrators for the Free Library of Philadelphia and 13 branch supervisors are among those affected. In many cases — as with Barr — the employees will not lose their jobs entirely but will have to take other positions.

While all 55 branches in the city soon will implement Saturday hours — which had been wiped out by previous budgets — the city plans to eliminate morning hours in 20 branches, leaving libraries open from 1-5 p.m. The changes are beginning to take effect this month.

Besides the Fumo Branch, the local facilities facing cuts in staff and hours are the Santore (formerly Southwark) Library, 932 S. Seventh St., and the Queen Memorial Library, 1201 S. 23rd St.

In response to the cuts, the Fumo Library will eliminate story hours for students, said Barr, who soon will be transferred to another location. The library also might scrap its monthly Italian-American film program.

The city selected the libraries at which hours will be reduced based on use patterns and proximity to other branches, said Dan Fee, a spokesperson for Mayor John Street.

"The hours that they are going to be open will be the hours that they will be most used," said Fee. "It will be a more efficient use of our resources."

The spokesperson added that library patrons could still visit a nearby branch during the morning hours.

Yet library advocates insist the cutbacks will produce hardships.

"All sorts of people in the community use libraries," said Amy Dougherty, executive director for the Friends of the Free Library. "If they’re only open from 1 to 5, how are all these groups going to use it? It will really cut down access to the entire community."

Arlene Rawlings, president of the Friends of the Free Library for the Fumo Family Branch, also opposes the cuts.

Many daycare directors in the area lack the transportation to bring children to the libraries that will maintain morning hours, noted Rawlings, also a director at the Forever Young Nursery School, 1125 W. Moyamensing Ave.

Rita Urwitz, vice president and business agent for Local 2186, said the decrease in hours also would affect seniors, whose free public transportation passes are valid only until 3 p.m.

"The cuts that are happening are draconian," said Urwitz, whose union represents library supervisors. "And I think that mostly poor, disadvantaged people who can’t travel, children and seniors will bear the brunt of this decision."

Once the changes are in place, the city will implement a restructuring in part-time branch staff. A full-time nonprofessional supervisor will assist two part-time library assistants, two seasonal library assistants and one municipal guard, said Urwitz. Librarians holding a master of library science degree will no longer operate the branches.

At the Santore Library, Barbara Paquetti, a branch employee since 1999, currently serves as a library supervisor, or branch manager — a position she’s held since 2001. Recently, she was given the option to take a demotion and will do so, reclaiming her former position as children’s librarian.

Under civil-service requirements, the affected supervisors can either demote to a lower position in the same class or obtain a position they previously held, noted Urwitz.

Yet, Dougherty from Friends of the Free Library said a staff that lacks fully accredited librarians is a drawback for the entire library system.

"It’s not just the hours," she said. "It’s the quality of service and the availability of a certain kind of service that will not be available to [the public]."

But Fee contended the city’s layoffs are an effective way to reduce spending while minimizing the impact on services.

"We continue to reduce taxes," he said. "If you continue to reduce taxes, you have to reduce spending."

In addition, Philadelphia, like other U.S. cities, is struggling with a recuperating national economy, he said.

The spokesperson claimed that future layoffs are contingent on Council’s action on the budget.

"It’s the mayor’s belief that if Council adopts a responsible budget, there will be no need for additional layoffs," said Fee. "All individual elected officials need to close the budget deficit and reduce their spending as well."

While the state slashed library subsidies by $3.5 million in the last fiscal year, Dougherty said the cuts in library staff and hours are solely a "city issue."

Meanwhile, library proponents are looking for the positives amid the transitions at local branches.

"I’m pleased that libraries will be open on Saturdays," said Dougherty. "My main concern is that what we are seeing is a detriment to the wonderful system we have."