Community voices concerns over library cuts

In response to the slashing of Saturday hours, Friends of the Free Library recently hosted a meeting to find solutions.

On Tuesday night, members of the South Philly community gathered at Donatucci library to discuss solutions regarding the Free Library of Philadelphia’s unforeseen Saturday closings that went into effect in September. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Dozens of librarians, library liaisons and community members convened at Thomas F. Donatucci, Sr. Library on Tuesday evening to scrutinize, question and seek solutions regarding the Free Library of Philadelphia’s unforeseen Saturday closings that went into effect in September.

Hosted by the Friends of the Free Library, an independent, nonprofit organization whose objective includes bridging the community with the city’s system, this forum was the South Philly-designated meeting included in the organization’s “Fund our Libraries” campaign — a series of similar community meetings taking place around Philadelphia.

From patrons of the Fumo Family Library in Lower Moyamensing to the Charles Santore Library in Queen Village, residents from across South Philly voiced concerns about cutting Saturday hours and, essentially, the power players allowing such defunding.

Of the 54 libraries throughout Philadelphia, only 23 are currently open on Saturdays with another six potentially opening on the weekends as staff allows over the upcoming months.

“One thing to point out about this, especially with access to internet, books, information, is this an optional resource in our community or is it critical things that we need to survive?” said one of the meeting’s leaders, Kate Goodman, a facilitator of the Friends of the Free Library. “I think, especially, the lower income a neighborhood is, the more these are services of survival and not necessarily optional.”

The closures, meeting attendees say, not only diminish access to literacy, internet and other forms of research — resources that are not certain in every household — but also ravage public community meeting spaces, not only reducing a reliable neighborhood bulletin board but also undermining political power of people.

Several registered community organizations, such as the Lower Moyamensing Civic Association, or LoMo, hold assemblies, such as zoning meetings, in libraries like Fumo. One LoMo member noted this was the case when local libraries were closed at certain points this past summer due to malfunctions with HVAC systems.

With issues regarding building maintenance, which relies on funding, the Friends of the Free Library facilitators described the process as a “vicious cycle” of defund, cut and then eventually close.

“So, part of this is — we’re starting the process of saying ‘Wow, it seems really clear that we don’t have enough money and that the (Friends of the Free Library) and the community don’t have enough of a say in how that money is used,’” Goodman said. “So, we’re at the starting point of trying to understand the budget, and we’re trying to encourage you to look at it with a critical eye, because this is your library. These are your tax dollars, and you deserve a voice in this process.”

The majority of the meeting involved dissecting the city’s role in that funding issue, including reflecting on the slashes the Free Library experienced in light of the recession in 2008 when about 20 percent of its city funding was lost.

In the 2009 fiscal year, a little more than $40 million was adopted for the Free Library in the city budget, according to the the Mayor’s Operating Budget Summary for that year. Just a year later, for fiscal year 2010, only close to $33 million was adopted for the city budget, according to the adopted operating budget for that fiscal year.

While the 2019 fiscal year was adopted at $41 million in funding, this figure allows for libraries next year to operate with 17 percent less funds than in 2008 if inflation and cost of living is considered, according to the Friends of the Free Library.

According to Friends of the Free Library, if pre-recession levels were adjusted for inflation, the library should receive closer to $50 million.

In 2018 alone, neighborhood libraries reduced regular hours 375 times due to “staff shortage,” the Friends of the Free Library say.

In the FY 2019 budget, $36,659,781 was designated for employee compensation, according to the budget. This was a $514,487 increase over fiscal year 2018, which includes District Council 33 union pay increases, also according to the 2019 budget.

“How the library gets money and spends money is, sort of like, in the hands of these few people at the top, but there’s two players that are not fully activated,” Goodman said. “And, in my opinion, that is the community. That’s you guys…”

The other group, she says, should be the library staffing, specifically the more than 500 of the 660 employees who belong to the District Council 33 union, considered a “blue collar” organization.

Last month, the Free Library told SPR the Saturday cuts were a result of “staffing constraints,” and throughout Tuesday’s meeting, librarians seemed to echo this same thought.

They say a minimum of four staff members are required to open library doors on any given day. If a fourth person is on the way, they can open up, but if they’re not there after two hours, then they must close. The librarians also said, due to security issues, they’re too apprehensive to open with just three employees anyway.

“I mean, I think, I want to be clear that the libraries would love to open every branch on Saturdays, right?” asked Friends of the Free Library facilitator Miriam Holzman-Lipsitz. “It’s not necessarily an issue of saying, like ‘Why aren’t you doing this? Why don’t you want to do this?’ The issue is, like, what are the structural issues? What is the funding issue that makes it impossible to do that in this city?”

Attendees broke into small groups based on their branches to dissect what exactly needs to be done.

With budget season quickly approaching this winter, Christopher B. Sample, chief of staff for Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office, advised attendees to reach out to local government with concerns in the beginning of 2019, stressing that, at the end of the day, decisions boil down to “who yells the loudest, who brings the most people, who tells us what’s the most important.”

But now, he says, is the time for community members to start strategizing.

“I have a 3 year old, and we used to go a couple Saturdays a month. … That’s how we got continued exposure to new ideas and new words and new language,” Alise Shields of the Queen Memorial Library told SPR. “And now, I feel like we’re in a rut. We have the same books at home. I can’t always make it out to the store to buy new books or buy new ones off Amazon. And so, we miss the library being open on Saturdays a lot.”

Currently, there are two South Philly branches open on Saturdays, including South Philadelphia Library and Charles Santore Library. Donatucci will possibly open in the coming months as staff allows.

But, residents feel that’s not nearly enough, stressing that all 54 branches and the communities they serve deserve full access to library resources six to seven days a week.

“I am here for the neighborhood not for me,” Nicole Roselli, also of the Queen Memorial Library told SPR. “I mean, it’s not OK. The kids are our future. I was a pediatric nurse for eight years, so I’ve taken care of kids of all different walks of life, and it’s not OK. This is, like, the fundamental well-being of these kids is being taken away by these hours.”