Free Library director Siobhan Reardon has resigned

The leadership change comes after intense pressure from Black workers to end a culture of discrimination.

Former President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia Siobhan Reardon at the Parkway Central Library in 2019

Former President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia Siobhan Reardon at the Parkway Central Library in 2019

Emma Lee/WHYY
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Philadelphia Free Library President and Director Siobhan Reardon has resigned after 12 years of leading the city literary institution. Reardon submitted a letter of resignation to the chairs of the library’s board of trustees and board of directors on Thursday.

“After careful consideration I have made the decision to step aside from my position as president & director of the Free Library of Philadelphia and to work with the foundation to plan a transition as president of the foundation,” Reardon wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Billy Penn.

Board of Trustees Chairperson Pam Dembe emailed a copy of Reardon’s resignation to board members Thursday afternoon.

“In the last several months, events have overtaken us all,” Dembe wrote to board members. “The health consequences of COVID-19 and the long-overdue wider rage about deeply imbedded racism have brought us to a point where the Free Library, like many other institutions must make very major changes if we are to most effectively serve our employees and our patrons.”

Reardon’s resignation comes one day after Billy Penn reported the library’s director was expected to step down before next week’s board meeting, set for Tuesday, July 28.

Hours after board members were notified, library staffers had not received official outreach about the move, according to an employee who requested anonymity. They said their team was notified by an executive-level supervisor, who said they’d found out via the media.

Staff eventually received an email from Reardon around 5:30 p.m.

Donors, however, were quickly informed. An emailed note from Shara Pollie, senior VP of development for the Free Library Foundation, addressed to “Library Supporter,” said board members were available to answer any questions.

Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement wishing Reardon well and thanking her for her service. The mayor also declared that his administration “stands in solidarity with the Free Library’s Black employees, and the countless others who have made their voices heard.”

Concerned Black Workers: This is ‘the only way forward’

The leadership change follows an intense burst of attention to the long-simmering issue of inequity in library workforce policies and procedures. This summer, Black library staffers organized as the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia and asked library executives and board members to create an equitable reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black people.

In late June and early July, the organized Black workers published open letters decrying library administration and calling for Reardon’s resignation. In solidarity, at least six prominent authors canceled planned events there. The library hired diversity consultants in an attempt to address the concerns.

The union representing Free Library workers also petitioned to have Reardon removed, after they said they were met with inadequate health safety measures when returning to work after the coronavirus shutdown.

In an emailed statement, the Concerned Black Workers called the resignation “the only way forward in a long way to healing and creating an anti-racist culture” at the library. The group demanded that the library’s boards and executive leadership take diversity training and instruction in anti-Black racism.

Who will choose the library’s next leader?

The library boards have not yet given any indication of who might replace Reardon or how they might conduct a search.

During her tenure, Reardon was named librarian of the year in 2015 by Library Journal. One of her most successful ventures was the Culinary Literacy Center, said library worker Kalela Williams. The demo kitchen and classroom has evolved into a space committed to food justice and food equity.

Williams, who is the Free Library’s director of neighborhood enrichment programming and part of the Concerned Black Workers group, said the search for the next leader needs to be a community endeavor.

“It needs to involve library staff, it leads to involve Black library staff, it needs to involve Brown library staff,” Williams said. “It’s absolutely essential that people who know the community are the people who choose the next director.”

Williams said appointing a Black person with librarian experience would be a “major move” for Philly.

The next push from the Concerned Black Workers group will be for a change in board leadership. The group called on Dembe to resign in their statement.

Dembe, the chair, came under fire earlier this week when she responded to an email from non-Black library workers without responding to earlier outreaches from Black workers. Dembe also issued a public letter of support for Reardon — against the recommendation of the diversity consulting firm hired by the library.

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