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Back during the Library Wars of 2008, when Mayor Michael Nutter wanted to close 11 libraries in the citywide budget cuts that followed the financial meltdown, news that he had changed his mind, and agreed not to close any of the Free Library’s 54 branches, came as a welcome victory. The concurrent announcement, that libraries would instead cut back on hours and days of service, struck most library advocates as a necessary and even fair compromise.
Five years later, though, many of those same advocates feel that the deal is no longer an acceptable one — and they’re asking the city to pony up for the money it would take to keep consistent hours at the branches it decided to preserve.
So yesterday, amid a flurry of testimony and public protest by city union members who are frustrated with stalled negotiations over a contract with the city, Friends of the Free Library executive director Amy Dougherty asked Council for an additional $2 million above the $1 million increase offered by the mayor in his proposed budget.
Nutter’s $1 million proposed increase, Dougherty pointed out, is the first increase proposed for the library in five years, since the mayor slashed the department’s budget by more than $7 million. Since then, she says, library users have had to navigate a bewildering matrix of closures and reduced hours, “creating confusion and potentially discouraging patronage.”
“Some libraries are open for longer hours on Monday and Wednesdays, and others on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Dougherty said in her testimony. Meanwhile, “half are open on Fridays and closed on Saturdays, and for the other half it’s the opposite.”
Pointing out that library patronage has declined even as demand for materials and other services (especially computer usage) has gone up, Dougherty argued that reduced hours and days have discouraged library use. She points to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’s Philadelphia Research Initiative on the Philadelphia Free Library, which, as we reported last week, found that one factor contributing to a decline in library use is the “extraordinary number of times that branches have experienced temporary, unscheduled closings in the past few years.”
The only other major U.S. city to experience such library closures during this time, the report noted, was Detroit.
The numbers bear out in the neighborhoods, says Linda Colwell-Smith, president of the Friends of the Torresdale Library.
“More and more people are using the branch, and they’re wondering why we’re not open more,” reports Colwell-Smith. “They’d love to see us open at night, they’d love to see us open on Saturdays during the summer.”
An increase of an extra $2 million, Dougherty argues, would bring consistency to all 54 branches, and allow “six-day library service for every Philadelphian” — a nicety that would be enjoyed by only 12 city branches in the budget proposed by Nutter.
McPherson Square Librarian Judith Moore said that right now all the branch managers are hoping they’ll be one of the lucky ones.
“But they should really do it for all of them,” she said.