Still trying to fill hundreds of open positions, the Free Library has managed to expand service at over a dozen branches

Saturday hours could be on their way as early as this winter.

Charles Santore Library branch in South Philadelphia

Charles Santore Library branch in South Philadelphia

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Two months after it received a $15.7-million budget increase, the Free Library of Philadelphia says its massive effort to staff up and keep branches consistently open five days a week is underway. But it’s still many months — and 300+ open jobs — away from being realized.

Since late March, according to a Billy Penn analysis, 12 branches have expanded their regular hours. Now, 36 of 52 neighborhood libraries, nearly three-quarters, have five full 7- or 8-hour days on their anticipated schedules. In the spring, only half of branches offered this.

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Several locations have also shifted their hours to open earlier or close later, at least on certain days of the week, which lets more patrons take advantage of services.

As of late March, only 16 neighborhood libraries were open after 6 p.m., and 32 opened before noon at least once a week. Per the current schedule, 19 branches are open past 6, and 37 have scheduled hours before noon. In some cases, shifts have occurred to accommodate the library’s LEAP program for schoolchildren, per library spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy.

But there have been struggles keeping up with those hours.

Last week, the library system experienced at least 29 staff shortages that caused abbreviated hours or unscheduled closures, according to online listings. One location, Fox Chase Library, is listed as closed for an extended period of time due to staff shortages.

During the library’s City Council budget hearing in May, Free Library Director Kelly Richards stated that “stabilizing five-day service” at branches throughout the city was one of the system’s major goals with the mayor’s proposed $55.8 million for the library — a number that grew to $58.4 million in the final version of the budget.

Still absent from any branch schedule are weekend hours. During the hearings, Richards said the library is “committed” to having locations open on Saturdays. According to library spokesperson Kalosy, that goal is still a matter of discussion with staff and unions, but could become a reality “as early as this winter.”

Any location that adds a weekend day would have to close for one weekday, since more funding is needed to keep branches open for six days a week during the academic year — about $3.25 million more, Richards estimated during the hearing.

Staffing is the major issue. A Billy Penn analysis from early February to late March found that more than 230 staff shortages occurred over a period of eight weeks, and 1 in 7 branches couldn’t open as scheduled on the average day.

At the hearing, Richards outlined a plan to add over 200 new full-time positions to remedy the issue. He declined to give a timeline.

But there’s already a staffing crisis. The library ended the 2022 fiscal year with 111 full time vacancies, per Kalosy — part of a larger struggle the city has seen in hiring municipal workers. As of mid-July, 1 in 7 city jobs were unfilled.

That means the Free Library — which has around 600 employees right now, per the Inquirer — now has to fill 336 full-time openings, plus 97 temporary part-time openings, Kalosy said. Those numbers include over 100 library assistants, more than 40 librarians, and at least 15 municipal guards, along with some equipment operators and workers in the communications, IT, and HR departments.

The Free Library recently brought on 11 new librarians, per Kalosy, who noted hiring is not a simple procedure because they’re civil service positions, which come with a slew of city-mandated technical and logistical requirements.

As of Sept. 13, no open Free Library positions are posted to the city’s jobs website. Some library assistant openings should be active soon, according to Kalosy, who estimated they’d be up sometime around the third week of September. Anyone interested in applying for a library position can sign up to be notified when there are more positions posted.

Patrons should expect to see gradual changes as the effort progresses, Kalosy said, adding that “significant onboarding” for the library’s hundreds of pre-existing vacancies and newly created positions is expected within a year.

“The hiring effort that is currently underway will allow us to maintain those hours,” Kalosy said, “so that we have increasingly rare closures due to staff shortages.”

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