It took 12 years for Ogontz residents to get a library in their neighborhood. But over the past decade, the condition of what they now consider an essential amenity has severely deteriorated. To keep it up and running, the community is organizing again — and they’re not alone.
In mid-December, library supporters from all over Philadelphia will stage a big protest rally outside City Hall.
It was back in 1985 when engaged folks in the Northwest Philly neighborhood began lobbying City Council for a Free Library outpost, arguing that a local location with computers and programming would help alleviate some of the neighborhood’s problems. After 10 years of activism and another two years of construction, the Ogontz branch opened up in 1997.
“It finally became a reality,” said Lena Johnson, president of the Friends of David Cohen Ogontz Library. “It created a great excitement in the community.”
However, Johnson said, operations are far from perfect. A lack of funding often causes understaffing and unexpected closures. In total, Northwest Philly library branches were forced to close early 86 times this year due to employee shortages — that’s the second highest rate in the city.
Money has been painfully tight ever since the 2008 recession, library advocates say, when the budget was slashed by $8 million. And it’s only gotten more dire: In 2008, the Free Library operating budget was $77.6 million. Currently, it’s about $49 million.
City officials began to address the shortage last week, when Philadelphia announced it would fill 62 vacant positions, enabling 35 of the 54 neighborhood branches to stay open six days a week. But that announcement didn’t actually dedicate any new funding to the network. Rather, the city simply audited the Free Library’s services and redistributed some staff members to fill vacancies.
“The libraries are in need of full funding, and at this point it hasn’t been occurring,” said Johnson of the Ogontz friends group. “Now, we’re trying to get the mayor and City Council to work with our organizations to provide full funding and resources.”
To make it happen, she’s teaming with library staffers and volunteers from across Philadelphia.
For the next few weeks, all branches will be collecting signatures on a petition that demands a larger allocation of municipal tax dollars. They’ll also run a letter-writing campaign and do a weekly social media pitch, sharing why Philly residents say a library is important to them.
It’ll all culminate in a rally on Wednesday, Dec. 12 outside City Hall, when organizers hope to present the citywide petition to Mayor Jim Kenney and members of City Council.
“We’re trying to spread the message and make people’s voices heard, so we can talk about how important our libraries are and how important funding is,” said Erin Hoopes, a library supervisor at the Philadelphia City Institute branch.
The Ogontz library serves three schools in its immediate vicinity: Central High School, the Philadelphia High School for Girls and General Louis Wagner Middle School. It’s also a haven for adults who need a computer to apply for jobs and access city services.
The lack of library funding, Johnson said, ripples through the entire neighborhood.
“You have a lot of people in need of the resources in the library, particularly the adults need the resources for jobs, going online to look for employment,” Johnson said. “There are many cases when the library isn’t accessible at a particular time.”