The Frankford Library is one of the designated cooling centers that'll stay open late Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

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In line to get a major funding boost in next year’s city budget, the Free Library of Philadelphia is aiming to make some significant changes to restore service, add staff, and improve internal culture.

If approved, the $10.4 million increase in Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed spending plan for FY23 would be the “most significant increase the library has received in recent memory,” Free Library Director Kelly Richards told City Council last week. Philly’s total general fund allocation for the library would be $55.8 million.

“With this funding, we can accomplish stabilizing five-day service throughout the city and doing more for the communities of Philadelphia,” Richards said at the budget hearing. He outlined specific goals like adding over 200 full-time positions so neighborhood branches no longer experience unplanned closures, and expanding library hours — including weekend service at some branches.

Other aims for the upcoming fiscal year include prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the organization, and doing some roof replacements and HVAC repairs at a few branch facilities.

The last few years have been rocky for the Free Library.

The system’s former director, Siobhan Reardon, resigned after 12 years in July 2020 amid allegations of racial inequity and mistreatment of Black workers. Meanwhile, library hours and staffing saw cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic — all while branches continued to struggle with the years-long issue of sudden closures during scheduled hours due to lack of staff and building emergencies.

Library trustees chose Richards as the library’s new director last fall, and he officially stepped into the role in January.

Expanding hours and opening on weekends

Stable five-day service, per Richards’ definition at the budget hearing, means opening every branch for a “minimum of 7 to 8 hours per day” without unexpected interruptions.

That wouldn’t quite get libraries to pre-pandemic schedules, when most branches had 45 scheduled hours per week (including 6 hours on Saturdays). But it would broaden many neighborhood libraries’ schedules — some of which have been operating for just 20 hours per week or less.

However, there’s no target date for when increased hours will take effect. Richards told City Council that providing a timeline estimate would be “really premature.”

“We are very committed to a Saturday schedule, but we want to build our capability up so that it’s stable and it’s not a schedule that is like where we are now, where we’re closing about 10 branches a day,” Richards said. “We don’t wanna do that.”

Not a single neighborhood library has weekend hours right now, and Philly stands out from other cities in this respect. It’s the only one in the country’s 10 most populated cities to lack any Saturday or Sunday hours.

Since the FY23 budget would only allow for five days of service, offering service on Saturdays would mean cutting a weekday from the schedule at some libraries.

It’s not clear yet which branches would have weekend hours with this plan. The Free Library’s written testimony lists a strategic goal to Tuesday to Saturday hours at regional libraries. (That’s similar to how it works in Dallas.) Free Library spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy said Saturday hours are still a matter of discussion with staff and unions.

Yvette Hill Robinson and Linda Colwell-Smith, interim co-chairs of the Friends of the Free Library — a group that advocates for increased library funding — said the plan is a “feasible first step.”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier suggested Saturday hours could be extended to branches in areas of the city disproportionately impacted by gun violence. Richards said that’s personally a commitment for him, but he couldn’t “answer that thoroughly” yet since hiring logistics are still TBD.

On recruiting needed staff: ‘a heavy lift’

Stabilizing service depends on bolstering staffing levels, which library advocates say are just 65% of what they were in March 2009.

Previous expectations to keep branches reliably open at current staffing levels were unrealistic, Richards told City Council. Neighborhood libraries are generally staffed at the minimum numbers they need to open their doors, so when any one person needs time off, the whole branch needs to temporarily close, he said.

Next year’s proposed budget would allow the library to add 220 full-time positions and 96 seasonal positions, Richards said, and the library would be looking to fill those in the first two quarters of the year, with a goal to fill HR positions first. (Someone has to do the hiring, after all.) The library is also currently working on filling positions that were budgeted for this fiscal year but are still empty.

“This is gonna be a heavy lift,” Richards said of the hiring effort.

Along with the increased workforce will come more staff trainings, and a continued and “intentional focus” on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Richards said.

All this is on deck with a fairly new and still slim executive team. When Richards started in January, only one other executive-level position was filled, per his testimony on Tuesday. Now, four are filled, along with two positions they’re looking to fill soon, he said.

Ideally, there would be four more, Richards said, to make up a leadership team of 10 — but not all are in the proposed budget for next year.

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson voiced concern about the ability to achieve the library’s goals without a full executive team.

The size of the team is “something we should look into,” Gilmore Richardson said, “because we cannot effectuate the work that we are seeking to see within the Free Library of Philadelphia if Mr. Richards does not have the full complement of his executive team and individuals in place to do that work.”

Some still want more

At the budget hearing, Councilmember Helen Gym — who’s made library funding one of her top priorities — said it’s “completely unacceptable” Philadelphia has a library system with no weekend hours, and suggested five days a week was not enough.

The library system would need around $3.25 million more to be able to open six days a week during the school year, Richards estimated at the hearing, to cover the needed additional staff.

The library has no estimate at this time for what it would cost to open branches seven days per week, said spokesperson Foti Kalosy.

Though the $10.4 million city budget increase is relatively large, advocates say it still falls short of what the library needs.

“Let’s face it — the policy of benign neglect regarding Free Library buildings and resources is wearing pretty thin,” Friends co-chairs Hill Robinson and Colwell-Smith told Billy Penn.

The Friends of the Free Library want to see a $30 million increase, to fund six days of service at all branches year-round, better staffing at every branch, full access to PPE for workers, career advancement opportunities, more money for programming, and capital repairs.

“Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods,” Colwell-Smith and Hill Robinson said, “and each neighborhood library branch is not only the heart of their respective communities, it is usually the only ‘free’ intergenerational place for [community], families and visitors to go where they can relax, research and enjoy fun, informative programs.”

They also stressed another important role: “Philadelphia needs a strong library system to provide a safe haven — a valuable neighborhood resource in the fight against gun violence.”

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...