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One particular line item in Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed $3.75 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2014 offers a solution to a problem that Philadelphia library goers have bemoaned for years: the large number of temporary, unscheduled closings.
As part of the 2014 operating budget, Nutter is proposing $750,000 to increase hours at 20 of the Free Library branches, two in each of the city’s 10 City Council districts. The Nutter administration will work with district council members to make those selections.
“We’re very thrilled to be in there with the additional funding because in the past we’ve had cuts,” said Sandra Horrocks, vice president of external affairs at the Free Library. “So this is really terrific news.”
Philadelphia is particularly plagued by these unscheduled closings, according to a 2012 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative titled “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future.”
Pew’s report compared the Free Library’s operations to those of 14 other library systems: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Queens, San Francisco and Seattle. It found that Philadelphians use their libraries less than their counterparts in most of the 14 other cities studied. One factor contributing to that low use was the “extraordinary number of times that branches have experienced temporary, unscheduled closings in the past few years.”
“If you one day go to your branch and find that it’s closed, an unannounced closure, you might think twice before going there again,” said Emily Dowdall, senior associate at the Philadelphia Research Initiative and coauthor of the report. The unscheduled closings are often a result of staff shortages largely due to budget cuts.
Before the 2008 financial crisis, the Free Library experienced 690 hours of unplanned closures, according to the Pew report. It found that only 51 of those hours at 17 branches were caused by staff shortages; the rest were due to emergency maintenance issues.
In the fall of 2008, Nutter and the library board announced plans to permanently close 11 of the 54 branches due to the collapse of the stock market. Protests and eventually a lawsuit ensued halting the closings. And for that Horrocks credits the public.
“The outpouring from the community was so strong and so vocal that that didn’t happen,” she said. “So it’s clear libraries are critically important.”
In lieu of the closings the Free Library suffered a budget cut of about $7.5 million. The cuts caused most of the branches to reduce their weekly openings from six days to five.
These cuts caused unscheduled closing to increased dramatically. In 2010, unscheduled closings reached 8,000 hours, more than three-fourths of them due to staff shortages; every facility in the system except Parkway Central, the Lucien E. Blackwell West Regional Library, and the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was affected.
It did get better the following year. In 2011, the number of unscheduled closed hours dropped to 3,662 hours, with less than half due to staffing.
Forty-nine of the Free Library branches are smaller and serve specific neighborhoods. The others are three much larger regional libraries and one that focuses on resources for the blind and physically handicapped.
Currently all 49 smaller branches are closed on Sundays, 23 are closed on Fridays and 27 are closed on Saturdays. Branches that are close in proximity to one another are essentially paired so that one is open on Fridays and the other on Saturdays.
Twenty-nine smaller branches are open past 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 20 are open past 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. None of the smaller branches open before 10 a.m.
The Pew report found that the Free Library’s five-day-a-week branch hours might not be distributed in the best possible way. Namely, the different schedules of the various branches proved to be problematic. “While intended to give patrons an increased chance of finding an open library, this system also can create confusion, which may discourage patronage.”
The proposed $750,000 in funding would not enable those branches that are open five days a week to be open six. But Horrocks said the funding would enable the Free Library to hire additional staff to expand branch hours, which could mean “adding some evening hours, maybe opening some locations on Saturday and Sunday.” When and where hours would be increased is contingent upon the union rules and regulations governing Free Library employees. Horrocks estimated that staffing accounts for about 86 percent of the Free Library’s budget.
Amy Dougherty, executive director of Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said the expansion in hours, although only applicable to 20 branches, would have an effect on the whole system.
“That will affect the entire system because once those 20 branches are totally stabilized they won’t be pulling people from other branches,” Dougherty said. “It will have a balloon effect. It begins to stabilize the operations of all branches.”
The Free Library will present its budget to City Council on April 15 at 11:30 a.m.