Aaliyah Manon, a student at Liguori Academy, in one of the reading nooks

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A Port Richmond high school finally has a library, thanks to the work of a dedicated administrator and donations from local authors, a local business, and community members.

Liguori Academy held a ribbon cutting Wednesday for its “Boundless Knowledge Library,” celebrating the transformation of a previously unused second-floor room into a warm space with bookshelves along every wall and nooks for students to sit and read.

Since it soft-opened in the fall, the library has been used in a number of ways. It’s been an alternate site for English and creative writing classes, and served as a subject for student photographers in an after-school internship program.

Their photos were displayed at the ribbon cutting. One was by Liguori senior Ahmya Fitten, who said she’d never done photography before, was thrilled about the opportunity. “It’s just a different way of how you see the world,” she said.

The library has also become a place where students come on their own accord.

“My office is right next door, and I’ll be leaving for the day, and there’ll be kids in here, sitting on a couch looking at a book,” said Nick Gregorio, Liguori’s dean of students. “I have to shoo them out at that point because it’s closing time, but yeah, that says it all.”

Teachers and students in the new library, which has lots of light — and space for plenty more books Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

The private, nonprofit school opened in Kensington in 2016, then moved to its current location last year. It enrolls about 90 students from around the city, according to Gregorio, the majority of whom are students of color. It serves about 125 more through the Fortis Program, a district-funded initiative that helps undercredited Philly high schoolers finish their education through personalized instruction.

In Philadelphia, access to a library is far from a given.

The Free Library system narrowed its hours during the pandemic, and has been having difficulty keeping even to that reduced schedule due to a lack of staff.

That was evident on the day of Liguori’s ribbon cutting. The school is within a mile of four different branches: the Fishtown Community Library, the Richmond Library, the Kensington Library, and McPherson Square Library. On Wednesday, both the Fishtown and Richmond branches were closed for the day for lack of staff.

Staffing is also an issue for Philadelphia public schools, which sometimes have libraries but can’t make good use of them because the district reportedly only has a single-digit number of librarians.

Liguori Academy’s library doesn’t have a librarian either, Gregorio said. And the school is still figuring out a cataloging system.

“Basically, at this point, the kids are like, ‘Can I take this?’ And I say yes, with the hope that they bring it back,” he said.

The library also contains magazines, music albums, and even comics Credit: Courtesy CMI and Compas

No library?! ‘You could have heard the tires screeching’

Pulling the Boundless Knowledge Library together was a big team effort, school leaders said.

Gregorio, the dean of students, is a published author himself. He credited his own school library with making him into a “lifelong reader,” and said he brought up the idea to open one at Liguori when he started there six years ago.

His plan wasn’t set in motion until November 2020. When the school was moving to its new building, one of its philanthropic partners — Cherry Hill marketing agency CMI Media Group and Compas — wanted to donate books to the school’s library. Then they found out there wasn’t one.

“You could have heard the tires screeching,” Carly Kuper, senior vice president for communications at CMI and Compas, told Billy Penn. “Like, ‘Wait a second.’ I think a lot of people don’t even realize that that’s possible, that there could be a school without a library, but it’s actually incredibly common.”

To help remedy the problem, CMI and Compas dedicated the next two employee holiday drives to raising money for books and furniture for the space.

With that base funding to start things off, Liguori staff kicked the plan into motion. Educators came up with a list of titles to start, and Gregorio hit up A Novel Idea bookstore on East Passyunk to collect them and ask for more recommendations. He also posted on social media asking independent and small-press writers if they wanted to donate copies of their work.

“Hundreds of books, dozens of boxes just started showing up at my house,” Gregorio said. “My wife wasn’t thrilled. It was a constant kind of joke: ‘Oh, you’ve got four more boxes at the door.’”

Nick Gregorio, dean of students at Liguori Academy, spearheaded the library effort Credit: Courtesy CMI and Compas

A Novel Idea co-owner Christina Rosso-Schneider, also an author, said it feels “surreal” to have two of her books on school library shelves, a personal first.

In addition to the small-press section, the Liguori library’s offerings include a lot of horror and science fiction as of now, Gregorio said. He’d like to add more literary fiction and young adult novels to the collection, which he said he hasn’t counted, other than noting it’s grown a lot over the past few months.

There’s not yet any specific time built into students’ daily schedules to visit the library, according to Gregorio, but he hopes to do that next year.

Abigail Appleton, who teaches workforce and career development skills, said she’s been excited to see students going into the library unprompted.

“At my high school, the library was really a place where people were every single day,” said Mary Theresa Martin, who also teaches workforce at Liguori. She described it as a safe place where students could get away from their desk and explore the things that interested them. “And for our students, they’re gonna have that same opportunity now.”

A piano sits in one corner of the new library Credit: Courtesy CMI and Compas

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...