The rebirth of the group comes on the heels of the recent Saturday slashing of library hours.
In light of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s unforeseen Saturday closings, which went into effect in September, South Philly residents recently gathered at Fumo Family Library to resurrect the Lower Moyamensing branch’s Friends of the Free Library alliance — a citywide independent, nonprofit organization whose objective includes bridging the community with the library system.
Fumo hasn’t had its own designated Friends chapter in close to a decade, as, in recent years, the original group was organically taken over by the Lower Moyamensing Civic Association, or LoMo, which helped fund the library for programming and other events, but, eventually this de facto Friends also diluted.
On Wednesday evening, under the guidance of Khari Graves, the community organizer for the South Philadelphia cluster of the Friends of the Free Library, about a dozen individuals, including librarians, civic association leaders and library members, discussed avenues of advocacy, education and coalition to get the libraries fully funded.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a Friends group,” said Todd Schwartz, former president of LoMo. “It’s supplemental funding. That’s our job … but, we’re not in a perfect world, so what we have to do is to find ways to fund programs and keep our libraries the best they can be.”
Among 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. In 2018 alone, neighborhood libraries reduced regular hours 375 times due to “staff shortage,” according to the Friends of the Free Library.
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 funding, considering cost of living and inflation, than in 2008 when about 20 percent of the library’s city backing was lost amid the recession. According to Friends of the Free Library, if pre-recession levels were adjusted for inflation, the library should receive closer to $50 million.
Although the autumn slashing of Saturday hours was attributed to staffing constraints, which community fundraising can’t directly finance, the Friends strive to collect more money for programming, as Fumo receives only a few hundred dollars a year for special event activities.
Aside from programming, meeting attendees say the library has been receiving bare minimum resources for fundamental housekeeping, such as cleaning supplies, which can often be purchased out of pocket by library staff themselves.
“I think a lot of times people accept that when you’re in a role, like a teacher or a librarian or somebody who’s running an entity for a community, that’s just a given,” Graves said. “But it really shouldn’t be.”
The group tossed around money making ideas, such as flea markets, holiday bazaars and carnivals. This could entail partnering with local schools, churches and businesses, especially considering, unlike several Philly libraries, Fumo does not have outdoor grounds.
The group also intends to kickoff letter-writing campaigns for both adults and children, which could involve students crafting letters in school, urging the importance of libraries to Mayor Jim Kenney. The new Friends even considered scheduling a “Happy Hour” writing letter event for those who are of age.
Graves also suggested simply taking fliers detailing the library’s current financial state and hanging them around the neighborhood.
However, while this kind of community outreach is crucial, a major task of the Friends revolves around grant writing, as the library staff is limited in what they can communicate in such financial applications.
But the Friends, serving as a separate entity from the system, is free from the red tape imposed by the city, as described by Graves, so grants can more smoothly be applied for by the foundation.
“I think grassroots, door-to-door outreach is essential, but I think, that nothing replaces government funding … I think that’s crucial,” Schwartz said.
The group also discussed the effectiveness of public assembling, as a potential City Hall protest is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 12, which will focus on getting full funding for every library in Philadelphia.
Individuals recalled the success of protesting during the city’s 2008 library finance crisis.
“Everybody protested and the end result was the libraries stayed open,” said South Philly resident Carol Pasquarello. “I mean, I think we need to be loud and vocal.”
Ideally, the protest, being organized for mid-December, falls appropriately on the city’s budget planning timeline, as the end of the year is ordinarily when negotiations between city government and city departments begin.
Graves said the kickoff meeting turnout, which welcomed about a dozen people, was already a significant start, as some Friends groups throughout the city are only comprised of a few people, and in some cases, just one person.
The next meeting has yet to be scheduled but will involve finalizing plans regarding the writing-letter campaign.
“It seems like everybody here is on the same page with libraries, as a city entity, need to be fully funded,” Graves said. “What does it say to close or take funds from, outside of school, one of the only free information sources in a community?”