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Trustees at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Friday unanimously elected Kelly Richards, a Black librarian from Michigan, as the system’s new president and CEO.
Richards’ appointment, confirmed during a special meeting of the Free Library board, remains conditional pending satisfaction of the standard requirements for City of Philadelphia employees, according to a statement. He would come to Philadelphia after six years as director of Michigan’s Muskegon Area District Library.
The library system launched a nationwide search for a new director after Siobahn Reardon resigned in July 2020 after years of allegations she allowed racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination to fester inside the library’s workplace. In September 2020, then-Chief of Staff Leslie M. Walker was appointed interim director.
The Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a group of Black staff that organized in 2020, requested involvement in the search for the next director but members of the group said they were excluded. Still, CBW said in a statement it looks forward to working with Richards.
“We are hopeful that his appointment will mark a new beginning for the Free Library of Philadelphia as a whole,” CBW said. “We wish him well and are optimistic that open communication and transparency are finally on the horizon.”
Richards, who began leading the Muskegon Area District Library, or MADL, in 2015, took a winding path toward becoming a librarian, according to an MLive article at the time.
A Michigan native, he was a police officer in Flint, Michigan, after studying criminal justice at Ferris State University. His second career began in Las Vegas in the early 1990s, MLive reported, as a manager in the library’s youth department. He was then recruited to intern in Pittsburgh with E.J. Posey, the first Black man to serve as president of the American Library Association.
Richards graduated with a master’s in library science from the University of Pittsburgh, and became a branch administrator in Las Vegas, where he led several building projects for the system. He was featured in “African American Librarians in the Far West: Pioneers and Trailblazers,” a book published in 2006 that highlighted Black librarians.
He was recruited to an executive position at Michigan’s Genesee District Library before taking the helm at MADL, which currently operates 10 branches, a book mobile, and one administrative building, according to its website.
The Free Library of Philadelphia operates 54 branches, which it says serve as many as 6 million visitors each year.
Internal controversy at Philly’s library became public in 2019 when The Inquirer reported a staff survey was taken down after employees detailed instances of xenophobia, homophobia, and racism from superiors.
In late June 2020, as George Floyd protests surged through the city and the world, Black staff members published an open letter calling on the Free Library to address staffing and protocol inequities linked to the pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives. The Black employees said they would not return to in-person work until demands were met.
The following month, an Instagram account launched to allow anonymous sharing of stories of discrimination within the library system. Six authors cancelled events at the library following the allegations.
A union representing library workers petitioned to have Reardon removed, saying they were met with inadequate health safety measures when returning to work after the COVID shutdown.
Following those events, the Free Library hired Philly native Dr. Guy A. Sims to serve as its first chief diversity and inclusion officer.