The Frankford Library has been closed partially or entirely 10 times in the past two months due to staff shortages

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East Passyunk resident Devalina Guha-Roy typically visits the library with her two school-aged children once a week. But when she and her kids arrived at the Charles Santore branch after school one afternoon around the beginning of February, a librarian came out to say the building was closing early.

Guha-Roy wasn’t too worried for her own family, since she works at a school with a library and has been using the Free Library of Philadelphia’s digital resources. But she did worry about the tween-aged children she saw waiting outside.

“It makes me think about all the kids who don’t have access, not just to books, but just to a safe space to do their homework, like a quiet space,” Guha-Roy said.

Unexpected closures are unfortunately common across the Free Library’s 54 branches. An average of about five libraries per day have opened late or closed early since Billy Penn started tracking reported closures in early February. During that same period, an average of about three branches per day have been closed entirely when typically scheduled to be open.

Taken together, that means on average, about 15% of Philly’s neighborhood libraries can’t fully open each day — about 1 of every 7 branches. All locations are already operating with reduced hours, with schedules cut during the pandemic.

Both the closures and cut hours largely come down to a matter of staffing, according to Free Library Director Kelly Richards, who stepped into the role in January. Richards’ ultimate goal is to be able to open more branch libraries on evenings and weekends, but he said the library can’t do that without more resources.

Library advocates say today’s staffing levels are 65% of what they were in 2009. They have been pushing the city to increase funding for the Free Library, which accounted for $42.8 million of the $5.27 billion in budgeted city spending last year.

In Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget for the upcoming year, the library would get an increase that includes $9.7 million meant to establish “stable, consistent 5‐day service,” according to the proposal. The mayor has “long championed the role of libraries in neighborhoods,” a spokesperson said.

“We’ve got a lot of support, but everybody’s trying to pull from the same pot,” Richards told Billy Penn in late March. “I think as we get through this budgetary process, all those issues with the hours and things will be addressed … we’re waiting for that process to work itself through.”

No weekends, fewer evenings

Jenna Scott, who lives and works in Old City, moved to Philly last year and tried to do what she always does when she moves somewhere new: check out the public library.

The closest branch is Independence Library on 7th Street, but it’s only open a few hours on weekday afternoons — from 2 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Fridays. Scott works standard hours at her day job, she said, so finding a time to go has become a challenge.

“A couple times, I literally left work early,” Scott said. “Or one particular day, I had an appointment in the morning, and it wouldn’t have taken that long, but I decided to take the whole morning off so I could go to Parkway Central and pick up a book they were holding for me.”

Scott said she’d love it if the library could have some weekend hours, even if they’re limited — but as of now, no Free Library branches are open on Saturdays or Sundays.

Of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., Philadelphia is the only one whose public library system does not offer any weekend hours. Most of these cities have at least some branches open six days per week, and a few offer service every day. Like in Philly, public libraries in Dallas also offer just five days of service — but its branches are open from Tuesday through Saturday rather than Monday through Friday.

This wasn’t always the case for the Free Library, though. According to a list of fall 2019 hours provided by the library system, all branches were open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and many offered broader hours in general.

Director Richards hopes to reinstate that. “There are multiple things going on here with the job market, with the budgetary process,” he said. “But the goal is to be open evenings and weekends moving forward.”

The Frankford Library Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

In the meetings Richards has had with library staff so far, he said, employees have asked for more and better resources, including a bolstered workforce.

According to the Friends of the Free Library — a nonprofit org that advocates for increased funding from the city — the library system currently has 761 full-time employees, compared to 1,131 in March 2009. The Free Library could not immediately confirm these numbers, according to spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti.

Additional library staffing would be welcome in “most every area,” Richards said — it’s not just frontline staff in the branches that’s lacking.

For example, patrons are experiencing delays in receiving reserved books because the library is short on materials sorting staff and has just one delivery driver transferring holds between branches, according to a recent Independence Library email newsletter.

The Friends of the Free Library told Billy Penn in February that there were between 50 and 100 budgeted but unfilled positions in the library system. A spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office said this week that the library is “actively recruiting for many currently funded and vacant positions,” and Richards said last week that many candidates are moving through the HR process right now.

Preserving six days of service at branch libraries has been a challenge in the past. Saturday hours were offered during the school year for a while, but in 2018 the Free Library announced it would be staffing fewer than half of its branches on Saturdays due to a lack of funding. The Mayor’s Office then called on the library to rethink its “staffing and management decisions,” and the library hired more employees with existing funding, allowing additional branches to be open on Saturdays. In 2019, the Free Library got a funding boost to hire even more staff and maintain six-day-per-week service at every library.

But COVID threw things off course. The library system shut down all services in mid-March 2020, offering just virtual resources and programming, and then came partially back that summer with just materials pickup offered.

During that time, the pandemic wreaked financial havoc on the library, too — the 2021 fiscal year budget, passed in June 2020, reduced library funding by 14% compared to the previous year and made the Free Library the city agency with the most layoffs.

Twenty-five libraries reopened for limited in-person services in January 2021, spokesperson Foti said, and other branch libraries opened as much as possible with their staffing levels in August 2021.

The vast majority of neighborhood libraries have reopened as of now, but none are open on weekends, and some still sustain cuts to weekday operating hours. The median loss is 6 hours of service per week — equivalent to the amount of time each branch was once supposed to be open on Saturdays.

Some branches have experienced far deeper cuts.

Librarians and their supporters rallied outside City Hall in Philadelphia for more library funding on March 28 Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

The Kensington Library used to be open 45 hours a week, including Saturdays, according to a list of fall 2019 hours provided by the Free Library. Now, that branch is open a total of 16 hours per week — four hours a day, Mondays through Thursdays.

Just 16 branches have hours after 6 p.m. Most branches still have some morning hours, but 20 locations open at noon or later every day.

The South Philadelphia Library no longer has morning hours, and South Philly resident Madelynn Katz said that’s impacted her ability to go there with her young child, who is a toddler. The branch is open from 2 to 6 p.m. most days, and Katz said that conflicts with typical afternoon activities, like naptime.

“Those are not hours for babies and toddlers,” Katz said. “The caregivers of babies and toddlers are looking for a place to go in the morning and early afternoon.”

Before the pandemic, Katz used to take her daughter, who was a baby at the time, on a less-than-10-minute walk to the South Philly branch one morning per week to load up on books. She now visits the Charles Santore Library, which is 20 minutes away and challenging for her to walk to with a toddler.

Katz also misses the more spaces and activities geared toward babies and toddlers at the South Philly branch, which she said aren’t as robust at the other one. Katz also mourns the community gathering aspect, which she lost at the beginning of the pandemic — but still hasn’t gotten back.

“Honestly, that was probably one of the things I grieved the most, was losing access to other families — other parents of young children, the librarians, and just the loss of that community and that space is really devastating,” Katz said. “So now that we are moving past that phase, we still are not able to go to that library.”

Charles Santore Library branch is no longer open on Saturdays — like all neighborhood libraries — and has often closed early on weekdays Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

‘It’s disturbing when they go there and the door is closed’

It’s not just cuts to scheduled hours. Neighborhood libraries across the system lack predictability in their operating hours from day to day. Most branches are open five days a week on paper, but last-minute issues often force branches to open late, close early, or not open at all.

The Friends of the Free Library estimates branch libraries are only equipped for 3.5 days of service per week with their current staffing levels.

“That’s not the way to run a world class library system in a world class city,” said Linda Colwell-Smith, interim co-chair of the citywide Friends and president of the Friends of the Torresdale Library.

Since Feb. 3, at least 40 library branches have opened late or closed early one or more times, according to Billy Penn tracking of closings and hour reductions posted on the Free Library’s website. Over that same eight weeks, 36 of the branches have had to close for an entire day at least once.

Libraries can sometimes offer materials pickup services when they’re facing staff shortages, and many do — for example, of the 16 libraries that were closed or had reduced hours this Monday, 10 offered materials pickup.

But libraries do more than allow people to check out books, and those services become unavailable when libraries have to suddenly close their doors.

For example, people often visit branch libraries to use computers and the internet to fill out applications for things like jobs, SNAP, or Medicaid, said Shelley Rosen, a member of AFSCME District Council 47 Local 2187 and a library worker in West Philadelphia who started working for the Free Library during the pandemic.

Rosen — who is not trained as a social worker — said she’s even helped one elderly person who lived alone learn how to text so she could inquire about apartments for rent, and she helped another elderly person navigate bureaucracy to sign up for a free phone plan.

“There are people who are isolated,” Rosen said. “They don’t know anyone. The library’s where they go to find someone who will speak to them and help them.”

A storytime rally for more library funding in West Philadelphia in March Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

A lot of kids turn to libraries when they need a place to go where they can feel safe, said Yvette Hill Robinson, interim co-chair of the citywide Friends group and president of Friends of the Overbrook Park Library.

“It’s disturbing when they go there and the door is closed,” Hill Robinson said.

The Free Library keeps a daily updated list of the locations with reduced hours or unexpected closures on its website and updates each branch’s individual webpage to reflect the changes, but hour modifications generally don’t transfer to Google. Individual branches sometimes post to their social media pages to publicize their up-to-date hours, though not always.

The library website always offers a reason for the closures or reductions, including a lack of staff, heating issues, building emergencies, or staff development. The most frequent one — cited at least 230 times in the past eight weeks — has been staff shortages. That causes unexpected closures or reduced hours at about six branches per day, on average.

At least four workers, including one security guard, need to be on site for a typical neighborhood library to be able to open for the day, according to Foti.

“It’s a terrible responsibility on the people [who work there] that if they feel sick, they have to think, ‘Gosh, if I don’t go in, the library won’t be able to open,’” said Alice Wells, a member of the Friends of the Walnut Street West Library.

Since Feb. 3, 43 neighborhood libraries have experienced at least one staff shortage, according to Billy Penn tracking of closures and reduced hours posted on the Free Library website.

Maddie Allard, a grad student studying library science who works as a nanny, regularly takes the child she takes care of to the Kingsessing Library for storytime.

In one case, Allard said, the library was closed because it was one person short of the number of staff it needed to open for the day. She asked the librarian if she’d be able to volunteer to lead the storytime to fill in the staffing gap, Allard said, but she ultimately was told that it wouldn’t get the library up to the threshold since she wasn’t officially a worker there.

“That’s when I got really fired up,” said Allard, who’s gotten involved with the Friends of the Free Library and has recently been encouraging people she knows to write to their city councilmembers. “That is ridiculous that they’re so underfunded that they can’t even stay open for advertised hours.”

Not just a pandemic problem

While the pandemic made things even worse, inconsistent hours aren’t completely new to Philly libraries — though the reasons for it in the past have been more mixed.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks was at the receiving end of a sudden library closure due to a staff shortage almost two decades ago, she said. Brooks once walked all the way from an unexpectedly closed branch around Germantown and Erie to an open one on Wagner Avenue with her kids, she said at a rally for library funding on Monday.

The distance from Nicetown-Tioga Library near the intersection of Germantown and Erie Aves. to Logan Library at 1333 Wagner Ave. is about a mile and a half, or a 32-minute walk.

“The librarians know, that’s a long distance — with kids,” Brooks said. “Because I wanted my children to have the same opportunity that I had [to visit the public library]. And it wasn’t available.”

Rachel Robinson, a member of AFSCME District Council 47 Local 2187 who’s worked in the Free Library system for around 7 years, said building issues have often been responsible for closures in the past.

Robinson has seen instances over the years where enough staff have been available, but things like broken heaters in the wintertime, a lack of cooling in the summertime, or big leaks would cause branch libraries to shutter for the day, she said.

“The thing that is so maddening from the perspective of a library worker who’s been in the system for quite some time is that this isn’t a problem that came about with the pandemic,” Robinson said.

Librarians and their supporters rallied outside City Hall in Philadelphia for more library funding on March 28 Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

According to a 2012 study of the Free Library by Pew Charitable Trusts, the “extraordinary number of times that branches have experienced temporary, unscheduled closings in the past few years” contributed to an overall trend of Philadelphians being less likely to use their public libraries than residents of other cities.

The Free Library system saw 8,000 hours of unscheduled closings in the 2010 fiscal year and nearly 3,700 hours in 2011 fiscal year, according to the Pew report — many due to staff shortages. In the 2008 fiscal year, before the recession hit, the system saw 690 hours of unplanned closures, with 639 due to emergency maintenance.

By a few years later, staff shortages were at the root of a smaller proportion of unplanned library closures. Building emergencies were the bigger culprit, causing 396 unanticipated closures in fiscal year 2018, The Inquirer reported.

“It’s long term neglect, that was kind of pushed further with the pandemic,” Robinson said. “But it’s already been over the edge.”

Securing more funds

For the current fiscal year, the library’s budget increased by $3.14 million, restoring less than half the amount that had been cut the previous year.

Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget for 2023 would allot a total $55.8 million toward the Free Library, a $13 million boost from its allowance for 2022. The plan would dedicate $9.7 million toward establishing “stable” five-day service.

A mayoral spokesperson told Billy Penn earlier this week that Kenney worked closely with Richards to “develop a budget that supports our shared vision for a system: a network of libraries that is responsive to community needs, dedicated to equity, and well-resourced.”

“In the context of all the pressing needs of the city, we are confident that the budget the mayor presents to City Council on Thursday will help our new director to achieve that vision,” the spokesperson told Billy Penn.

The funding increase is still tens of millions of dollars off from what library advocates are asking for.

The Friends of the Free Library are pushing for a $30-million increase in library funding for 2023, as well as year-round, six-day service. They want to see every branch have at least one librarian each dedicated to children, teen, and adult services, along with a digital resource specialist.

The Friends are also asking for additional funds for programming, paid education for staff career advancement, a capital budget for building repairs, and full access to free PPE for library workers.

A contingent of city councilmembers — Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, Isaiah Thomas, and Derek Green — joined the Friends in voicing those demands at a rally outside City Hall this week. Staff from Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s office were also present to express his support.

Several of the councilmembers at the event tied the need for more library funding to the need for broader anti-violence efforts.

“There is nothing that is tougher on crime,” Gym said. “There is nothing that is more of an anti-violence measure than seeing our children go to libraries, to choose books over bars, to make sure that they have that opportunity in every single neighborhood.”

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Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...