After nine months of citywide advocacy, the Friends of the Free Library convened at City Hall on Thursday for a final rally before City Council voted to approve the 2020 fiscal year budget.
In response to a colossal campaign for increased funding spearheaded by the Friends of the Free Library, an independent, nonprofit organization whose objective includes bridging the community with the city’s system, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s 2020 budget totals close to $46 million, which is $3.5 million more than the Fiscal Year 2019.
The nearly $3.5 million bump encompasses roughly $1 million designated for salary union raises, $500,000 in maintenance repair and $2 million for six-day service during the school year, which was the fundamental fight sparked by the Friends last fall.
About $21.7 million will be allocated over the next five years for Free Library staff and building maintenance, allowing for six-day service at all library branches during the school year in FY20 and six-day service all year in FY21.
While the Friends express gratitude for the mayor’s proposed funds over the next few years, many argue that this raise is merely a drop in the bucket, as the organization has been advocating for a more than $15 million increase just for one fiscal year – an increase, they argue, needed for full funding of all 54 branches.
“When libraries are closed, when libraries are short-staffed and underfunded, we can not do our job and be there for those in our community who need us most,” said South Philadelphia librarian Abbe Klebanoff, a member of AFSCME District Council 47 Local 2186. “There is a real cost to having enough funding for the library and that cost is priceless.”
In 2018 alone, there were more than 750 emergency closures, including about 350 due to lack of staff and roughly 400 due to building problems, according to data provided by the Friends.
For both the Friends and the free library system, year-round six-day service is considered a top priority, as in September 2018, Saturday hours at nearly half of the city’s more than 50 branches were unexpectedly slashed due to staff constraints.
The current $3.5 million increase allocates funds for six-day service in branches across the city just from September through June during the fiscal year 2020.
“I don’t think ($3.5 million) is going to cover the number of libraries that we have and the number of patrons that the library could serve if the libraries were open longer,” said Graduate Hospital resident Priya Dasgueta. “Just to have enough staffing to keep the libraries open longer as well as maintaining the buildings themselves – ($3.5 million) is not adequate.”
Along with issues surrounding six-day service, protesters spoke out against the lack of resources designated for programming.
Currently, each of the city’s 54 branches receive only $400 per year for community programming.
This is considered extremely inadequate by the Friends, since, within the past year, the city’s branches hosted a combined total of about 25,000 programs, according to Marilyn Dyson of the Fund of Our Libraries organizing committee.
Averaging scant amounts of dollars designated for programs, librarians say they’ve been forced to pay for resources out of pocket.
“How are we, as library workers, supposed to focus on our work when we’re struggling to live day to day?” asked Shante Brown, a seasonal library assistant. “Underfunding the library is not a bunch of numbers. Underfunding the library impacts people who look like me and work hard every day just like me…Underfunding the library is an injustice that needs to be addressed.”
Librarians say some of the programming that could use additional funds include crucial educational resources, such as Readby4th, a citywide organization that strives to have all students reading on grade level by fourth grade, and the Literacy Enrichment Afterschool Program (LEAP), which include daily literacy activities, health and wellness programs, homework assistance and computer literacy.
Beyond the realm of education, advocates argue that the library serves as a safe space, especially for those struggling with mental, emotional and social issues.
Librarians say, on a regular basis, the library is a haven for vulnerable individuals.
“…The library is more than a repository for books,” Klebanoff said. “It’s more than just a faceless person sitting at the reference desk. It’s a place for the vulnerable, the elderly, the homeless, struggling single mothers and bullied kids. And, in the center of it all, is the librarian, who listens, who gets to know each and every one of their most susceptible patrons and builds community.”
Looking ahead, the Friends of the Free Library ensures that its movement is far from over.
Starting in the fall, they’re prepared to kick off another year of full-funding campaigns, including lobbying their representatives, such as Kenyatta Johnson, who had requested a $6 million budget bump from last year, and Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who requested a whopping $25 million increase.
“They think…we’re just out here making noise, but no,” said Betty Beaufort, chairwoman of the Friends of Queen Memorial Library in Point Breeze. “We’re making noise, because we’re concerned about our communities and our neighborhoods because they’re suffering too much. When our libraries suffer, we all suffer, because that’s where people go to. That’s their means of survival.”