Keeping libraries alive and thriving

In one pocket of South Philly, nearby residents are ecstatic at the sight of a brand new library – the state-of-the-art South Philly Branch on the bottom floor of the brand new Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) South Philly Community Health and Literacy Center, 1700 S. Broad St. It’s a beautiful and brand new library with the newest technologies, brand new material, and a highly-functioning HVAC system. It’s that last element that’s troubled a couple of the South Philly’s branches sickly siblings.

The Fumo Family Branch, 2437 S. Broad St., sadly, sits closed just under 10 blocks south due to a failing air-conditioning system. The Charles Santore Branch, 932 S. Seventh St., in Bella Vista just reopened after a rough patch in early June that saw a heat index rising above 84 degrees. The South Philly Branch may be a bit of an exception, because of its unique funding formula being a public-private partnership, but it still remains the first brand new library built by the Free Library of Philadelphia since the 2002 building of the Widener branch at 28th Street and Lehigh Avenue.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, 25 so-called Carnegie libraries were built in the greater Philly region more than 100 years ago with a huge check from Andrew Carnegie – more than 2,500 libraries were built across the country between 1883 and 1929. The Donatucci Branch, 1935 Shunk St. was built in 1914 and renamed in 2004, and it’s the last surviving South Philly Carnegie library (the Ritner Children’s and Southwark branches were either razed or converted to serve other purposes).

Some libraries need a lot of help. At least we have one that needs none.

“We were packed opening day,” Sandy Horrocks, the Free Library Foundation’s vice president of external affairs, said of the South Philly Branch’s June 11 grand opening. “It’s brand new – everything is brand new. All the books and materials have never been touched.”

She reported 2,400 visitors on the day of the opening, and 1,000 items checked out while 103 library cards were issued.

But we really wanted to get some answers about Santore and Fumo – how could they get closed, and how on Earth can a library close for as long as a month?

“We have a lot of old infrastructure that desperately needs some help. They are beautiful, beautiful buildings – the bones are great but they haven’t been getting any attention for a long time,” Horrocks said.

Four libraries are currently being renovated and therefore temporarily closed.

“It’s horrible, horrible, horrible. We obviously never want to be closed, but we do feel that when they return to the community, it will be a major improvement,” she added. “We’re holding some of them together with chewing gum. It’s heartbreaking.”

Fumo is set to reopen Tuesday, July 5.

With the fresh passage of a sugary drink tax from City Council, perhaps some of these issues may become a memory for future generations.

“This June, our city took a powerful step forward in its commitment to our public library system. In passing the Soda Tax, we have ensured some $300 million in funding for public spaces, including the Free Library of Philadelphia,” Mayor Jim Kenney wrote in, via spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. “As we’ve seen with the rising temperatures and the related shuttering of library buildings due to HVAC and cooling problems, the need to invest in what has become a crumbling, aging system has never been more clear.”

Across South Philly’s Free Library branches, many innovative librarians and regular visitors have taken it upon themselves to propel the summer mission of the Free Library system – keep kids reading. Horrocks explained the back sliding phenomenon – “if children don’t keep reading at least five or six books then they will not go back to school reading at the level they left – they’ll lose at least three months,” she said. “It’s a huge problem. We make a big effort all through the summer to get children reading.”

Lindsay Friedman, the children’s librarian at Santore, has done just that and created a voracious and devoted set of families in Bella Vista and Queen Village who flood the family-friendly branch all summer.

“We’re so lucky for a lot of reasons in South Philly – I do think that no one’s trying to close libraries, and I think City Hall understands that,” she explained. “We’re trying to be open with more hours and more access. Around here, we traffic in children. We circulate a lot of children’s books and we try to give the community what they’re looking for if we can.”

She talks about how getting kids into literary fun isn’t just picking the right books but including reading in activites that require play, singing, physicality, exploration and experimentation. That’s where Jams in the Park was born, a weekly storytime and sensory activity hour every “fair-weathered” Wednesday at 10 a.m. in Dickinson Square Park, East Moyamensing Avenue and Tasker Street. Typical activities might include bubbles, volcanic simulations, magnet play, spin art with a salad spinner or food coloring creativity.

Michelle Robinson, or Ms. Meesh as she’s often lovingly called, is a nanny who’s been working with South Philly families for five years. She runs a play group in Fishtown but found Lindsay one morning and their professional friendship has blossomed.

“She let me do a storytime there and it’s just kind of branched off,” Robinson said. “I’m interested in artful experiences and getting kids dirty and messy and having them experience the world in different ways, and I love to provide that environment. It’s also just so much better without walls.”

Horrocks said similar tactics have been used at other branches to get kids into the swing, like reading to a dog instead of a human, to side-step the struggles of judgment while sounding out words and sentences. They embrace whatever interests kids, too, like comics or graphic novels: “The whole purpose is to get children to explore the joy of reading, rather than the drudgery, and maybe make it more exciting than it is at school.”

She also points out that libraries aren’t just for youths, and that it’s tragic if eager job-seekers are denied Internet access. Libraries, she pointed out, are also just safe havens and spaces for countless South Philly families.

Robinson has long linked visual arts with reading. She also connects, like many, a struggling school system with the essentiality of a robust free library.

“I don’t understand why there isn’t more of a movement,” she confessed. “We’re a city with extreme poverty and with that comes education issues, and that also circles right back around to why the library is so important.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Opening day at the new South Philly Branch was a hit. Nearby residents and their kids are definitely ready for fun and reading.

At Jams in the Park, Santore Library takes storytime to Dickinson Square Park.

Photo Provided by Lindsay Friedman

Photo Provided by the Free Library of Philadelphia