Al Día: Philly Councilmembers gather to demand more library funding

On Thursday, March 31, Mayor Jim Kenney is set to deliver his second to last budget proposal to City Council.

As the nation and the city of Philadelphia move towards recovery from the pandemic, city councilmembers, along with library staff and concerned community members are urging Kenney to provide $30 million in funding for the city’s 54 library branches.

In a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article, Jan LeSeur, president of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, expressed her disappointment and frustration with the lack of proper funding for city libraries.

Currently, the Philadelphia library system is severely understaffed, underfunded, and several branches experience unexpected closings for days or even weeks, due to unsafe infrastructure.

“The boiler hasn’t worked for ages. The doors are falling off their hinges. The library is full of mold. Or the roof leaks and is so weakened that a raccoon falls through into the library and wreaks havoc, leaving a bloody mess. The library branch is closed for another week,” LeSeur wrote.

Libraries serve as one of the most vital centers in a strong community. They provide a space for lifelong learning, programming for children, teens and adults, improved literacy, and so much more.

Year after year, the city’s budget has neglected its library system, and the community members that depend on its services have paid the price.

As LeSeur wrote in the Inquirer story, the continued disinvestment in the library system is “nothing short of tragic.” The current library budget is only 75% of what it was 15 years ago.

On Monday, March 28, several city councilmembers, including Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier, gathered outside of City Hall alongside library workers and community members, to raise awareness of the detrimental impacts of this disinvestment, and to affirm their commitment to making a change.

Prior to the press conference, Gym, Brooks and Gauthier participated in a storytime event. While there was only one young child in attendance, she sat happily as the councilmembers took turns reading their favorite children’s books.

Even in the unseasonably frigid weather, about 25 library workers and volunteers from Friends of the Free Library, came out in full force, with posters, hot chocolate for attendees, and passion for the cause.

Each councilmember who took the podium shared their experiences of growing up in Philadelphia and feeling like their local library was their second home.

“I am the daughter of immigrants. My parents did not have much when I was growing up. If there was not a single book in English at home, I knew I could get it at the free library and my local public library. My college essay was typed up, not at home, not at school, but at my public library,” said Gym.

Brooks, who moved from New York City to Philadelphia at eight years old, found solace at Northwest Regional Library, as she learned about the city she came from and the one she moved to.

“I had the opportunity to learn about amazing women who are still my ‘sheroes,’ whether it was Angela Davis or Shirley Chisholm… it gave me the opportunity to dream and dream big,” Brooks said.

Brooks wanted to share this love of books and learning with her children, but due to staff shortages and unexpected closures, the dream has remained unfulfilled.

Adam Feldman, a library worker in Center City, expanded on this sentiment, highlighting the direct connection between rising gun violence and underfunded libraries.

“Children are waking up to libraries and finding them closed during the highest spike in gun violence our city has ever seen. It’s unacceptable and preventable,” Feldman said.

Throughout the pandemic, library workers stepped up and provided digital services, book pick-up services as well as COVID-related resources, despite being forced to make due with miniscule funds.

A $30 million increase in funding for Philly’s libraries would translate to more staffing, improved building safety, access to services during the evenings and on weekends, and so much more.

“Show us you care, Mayor Kenney and City Council. Fully fund our precious Free Library System. Strong libraries are essential,” said Linda Colwell-Smith, co-chair of Friends of the Free Library.