Left: Library assistant Omelio Alexander shows off his innovative display solution; Right: Ties on the rack, ready for borrowing

Nate Eddy is the first to admit he’s far from a fashion expert. As strategy coordinator for the Philadelphia Free Library, he spends most of his time figuring out the best way for the 125-year-old institution to implement its ambitious strategic plan to “build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.”

Yet this past January, Eddy found himself dedicating several workdays to browsing Amazon’s necktie selection.

“I’m not a tie aficionado,” says the career librarian, 38, “but I do know wearing a nice tie can add a lot of confidence.”

He eventually found a dozen designs he liked, and placed the order. On March 10, the ties debuted in their new home: On display in the Paschalville Branch Library in Southwest Philly. Like anything else on the library’s racks, the ties are available for borrowing for three weeks at a time, totally free of charge.

The “tiebrary,” as Eddy likes to call it, wasn’t officially announced — it was launched softly, without any fanfare. But this week, the Paschalville Branch got a special visitor, who inadvertently blew up the spot.

Way beyond books

If you still think of libraries as places where books gather dust in an especially organized fashion, think again.

A library in Michigan lends out power tools and measuring tapes. In Rhode Island, fishing rods are on offer. Harvard Library offers members a chance to sign up for timeslots with a Shih Tzu — for those times you really need snuggles but don’t want to deal with a pet of your own. And at Philly’s McPherson Square Branch in Kensington, there’s a whole collection of cake pans you can borrow to add more fun to home baking sessions. It’s the sharing economy, on a public service level.

“People like to say the internet will be the downfall of books, and hence the downfall of libraries,” says Eddy. “But we’re much more than that. We are community centers.”

The role of libraries in today’s society is similar to what Mayor Jim Kenney is looking to achieve with “community schools” in Philadelphia. Under his plan, 25 public schools would expand their purview beyond education to offer health, social, emotional and after-school resources to both adults and kids. However, implementation depends on approval of $40 million in funding, partly paid for by the controversial proposed sugary drinks tax, so it’s no sure thing.

For now, there’s the library. A 2012 Pew Charitable Trust study showed a third of Philadelphia Free Library visitors came in search of health information, and nearly one in three — 29 percent — came because they were looking for a job, whether it was to use a computer to fill out an online application or to research how to put together a resume.

Paschalville Library, located in an area of the city with traditionally high unemployment rates and a large immigrant population, has run what it refers to as a “Job Readiness Center” since 2006. Over the past decade, the “job lab” has proven immensely popular. Staff members are available for one-on-one counseling and assistance, and the three computers in the room are reserved for job-seeking use only. (The branch offers nine computer terminals in total.)

Now, patrons can take things one step further. Once they take advantage of library resources to score an actual interview, they can swing by and pick up a nice tie, improving their chances of making a good impression on potential employers.

Finally, a use for VHS cases

This isn’t the first library to offer up neckties. The idea came from a “tiebrary” Eddy saw on a tour of the Queens Public Library last year. (He made sure to reach out to the librarians there to ask if it was OK to steal their concept before suggesting it to his colleagues.)

But, as far as Eddy knows, that’s the only other place doing it. Plus, the way the Southwest Philly branch has implemented the tie collection is unique. Instead of a row of bookmarks that visitors take to the front desk to exchange for a tie they haven’t seen, like in Queens, the cravats at Paschalville are actually on display. The colorful lineup is much more likely to catch someone’s eye, making it more likely to be used.

It was library assistant and Southwest Philly native Omelio Alexander, 35, who came up with the method that made displaying them on racks feasible.

“Originally they just gave us a regular tie rack,” he says, “but that’s not effective. Someone could just grab a tie off it and not have accountability.”

Instead, he rummaged through the storage room and came up with a solution: Old plastic VHS tape cases. Folded in thirds and clipped together, a tie fits perfectly inside the clear container, Alexander discovered. He lined the cases with red and white paper, slipped the ties inside, secured each one with the standard library lock and stood them in rows on a shelf.

No one has yet checked out a tie, but Alexander is confident they will.

“We’ve been discussing ways to start promoting it, but they’re right next to the Job Readiness Center, and they way they’re set up, you can’t miss them,” he says. The collection includes a variety of patterns, from dots to plaid to stripes.

Is the Paschalville staff ready to give fashion advice? “If we’re asked, I’m sure we won’t be shy.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.