In Philly, library advocates demand $19.3M in new funding ahead of budget negotiations

The Free Library of Philadelphia (Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Advocates for the Philadelphia Free Library are demanding $19.3 million in new funding for the 54-branch system ahead of Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget address.

On Monday, the nonprofit volunteer group Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia unveiled a six-point plan that calls for Kenney and City Council to boost the library’s current $49 million budget to pay for staffing ($12 million), infrastructure upgrades ($5 million each year for the next five years), training, resources, and extending six-day service throughout the year.

“A lot of these buildings need some serious help,” said Linda Colwell-Smith, a member of the organizing committee for the Friends group. “We need to make our branches safe spaces for our communities and for the people who work in them.”

Deana Gamble, a spokeswoman for the Kenney administration, did not address the library advocates’ funding demand in an email but said the upcoming fiscal year 2021 budget and five-year financial plan were being finalized in preparation for the mayor’s budget address on March 5.

“The needs of all City offices are great, and balancing a large number of important priorities amid the City’s limited resources will be part of the forthcoming budget process this spring,” she said.

Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Free Library, said in an email that the library declined to comment on its budget proposal until City Council hearings.

The Friends’ funding plan would pay for:

  • Training for staff, including how administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and CPR certification.
  • Ensuring all libraries are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • A program to promote staff equity, diversity and inclusion;
  • Office and building supplies;
  • Better furniture and resources for members; and
  • A board made up of library advocates and community members to review and advise library policy, budget and staffing needs.

Last year, library advocates led a vocal campaign for more than $15 million in new funding but the library received only $3.5 million, which was later increased by $1 million during a mid-year budget transfer. The money paid for additional staff, infrastructure improvements, and six-day service at all library branches for most of the year.

Library officials have stumbled in recent years over diversity among the system’s staff.

During a November City Council committee hearing, legislators grilled library leadership about the speed at which they have moved to diversify the staff, address bias and shrink a wide racial pay gap.

A 2019 report found that staff demographics do not reflect the city’s and full-time Black employees earn the least out of all racial groups. Library officials also have yet to hire a full-time diversity and inclusion officer.

Terry Lawrence, a member of the Friends group for Cecil B. Moore Library, said he uses his local North Philadelphia branch to print resumes, apply for jobs, and network.

But Lawrence, 26, said staffing shortages have closed the library several times during the last year, preventing him from using its resources.

More funding for his branch, he said, “would make it a more accessible, more available space for people to be in and enjoy the resources that the library actually provides because it’s a lot.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.