The Free Library of Philadelphia rolled out new operating schedules this week, bringing extended hours to the main branch and standardized schedules across neighborhood locations.
The changes come as the library system continues to dig its way out of an understaffing crisis that led to limited hours and sudden closures due to worker shortages. The last two city budgets have included increases in Free Library funding to address the dearth of staff and attempt to stabilize service across the system.
The budget-induced hiring blitz isn’t over yet, but library officials say things are improving for the system. In January 2022, Philly libraries were open just 40% of the time due to lack of staffing, Free Library Director Kelly Richards said at the Free Library’s budget hearing in April. By January 2023, that number had grown to around 70%, he told City Council.
As of now, Philadelphians can expect their libraries to reliably stay open during scheduled hours, said Joel Nichols, the Free Library’s chief of neighborhood library services.
“They’re not just aspirational hours, like maybe a few years ago,” Nichols told Billy Penn. “You’re not going to have to call or you’re not going to have to just get materials at the door, I hope. We’re gonna be able to really deliver on these hours.”
The Free Library also decided to standardize hours across the city in a new iteration of its schedules, so that there’s a more widespread understanding of when Philly’s 50+ libraries are open.
The schedule isn’t universally popular. But it’s what library leaders say is a groundwork for the system to expand service even further as it fills more vacancies.
“One thing we really are trying going forward is consistency,” Nichols said. “And so this change helps us get all of our neighborhood libraries on the same consistent late night schedule … and we think that’s just step one, or steps one and two, in being able to provide consistent, reliable service that we hope will only build from here.”
What the new schedules look like, and how they’re different from before
With the new schedules, 37 libraries have between two and four operating hours subtracted from their weekly schedules, per a Billy Penn analysis, but some branches gain as many as 17 scheduled service hours per week.
One particularly notable increase in service is at Parkway Central Library, which gains a whole set of evening hours it hasn’t seen since pre-pandemic times. Monday through Thursday, it will stay open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Fridays, it will stick to the same 9-to-5 schedule it’s had in recent years.
What about neighborhood libraries?
Prior to this week, branches’ schedules varied widely from one another, opening and closing times varied by day of the week at some locations, and there were some big disparities between branches in terms of the number of scheduled operating hours.
With the new schedule, each branch is open for 37 hours per week, and the hours from neighborhood to neighborhood are similar. Neighborhood locations throughout the system will operate from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, most branches will operate from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the rest will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (The main exceptions to all these are the five libraries with active Rebuild projects underway, which are closed altogether.)
Per Nichols and Free Library First Deputy Director Priscilla Suero, the library administration decided the hours after reviewing materials checkout data broken down by hour of day, input from patrons and staff, and attendance numbers from after-school programs.
More changes to come, officials say
Some Free Library workers are satisfied with the new schedule since it offers them more consistent start times throughout the week, said Kate Goodman, a library employee and member of the workers’ union, AFSCME DC 47 Local 2187.
But some staffers are unhappy with the new schedules, Goodman told Billy Penn, since they think instituting uniform hours across the system doesn’t leave space to be responsive to the specific needs of the communities they serve.
For example, the library Goodman works at sees a big crowd at its after school program. Sometimes, students don’t get to the library until 4:00 or 4:15 p.m. — and with the library slated to close at 5 p.m. for most of the week, that barely gives them any time there, she said. (Her branch previously closed at 6 p.m. every day but Friday.)
Goodman finds it “heart wrenching” that she’ll have to tell kids to start cleaning up just 30 minutes after they arrive.
“Community members, especially in low-income neighborhoods, who primarily go to the library that’s in their neighborhood, it doesn’t really matter to them what the schedule is in Mount Airy or South Philly or Kensington if they come to the North Philly branch that I work in,” she said. “And so it’s most important for us to have hours that work for our patrons.”
Suero emphasized that these new schedules are just “ground zero” in making Philly libraries more accessible to the community.
She pointed to a Pew Charitable Trust-funded strategic planning process that’s underway, which she said will involve “deeper research and community engagement,” including finding out whether the current hours work for patrons.
“There’s still a lot of learning,” Suero said. “We’re just starting from a blank canvas and we’ll build on that.”
In the future, once the library has hired more staff, hours could once again vary neighborhood by neighborhood, she said. A library spokesperson later clarified that standardization is the plan moving forward, but the strategic plan would “inform” whether there’s a need for more branch-specific schedules.
What about weekends?
The Free Library’s announcement of its new schedules came along with the promise of Saturday hours “very soon,” with more information ahead in the “coming weeks.”
The library system did introduce some Saturday hours this spring and summer at 10 branches across the city — but those hours aren’t included on the fall schedule. Those were made possible by library staff working voluntary overtime, a library spokesperson told Billy Penn in February.
Goodman’s branch was one that offered weekend hours earlier this year. The extra day, she said, gave the library the ability to host more community events, plan special programming, and welcome lots of families.
“I don’t think we saw the full usage that we would see if we were able to consistently have Saturdays at every branch for a long period of time, because library usage kind of lags behind hours, because people have to know that we’re open and be confident that we’re open,” Goodman said. “But I thought it was great, and I was really thrilled to have my library be one of the places where we were able to offer Saturday hours.”
The newest city budget allocated enough money to the Free Library to be able to offer six-day service system-wide, Suero said.
Per Suero and Nichols, the hope is that they’ll be able to start rolling out Saturday hours at a set of around 10 branches at the beginning of 2024. From there, the plan is to gradually roll them out at more branches in groups of approximately 10.
Like the Free Library’s overall schedule, that’s something that will be contingent on the ongoing hiring process.
Around 85% of the approximately 300 positions open in July 2022 were filled by the end of this June, according to Suero. There are currently 50 positions left to fill, she estimated.
Nichols said the library — whose applicants have to go through the civil service process since most library positions are considered city jobs — is “mobilizing this sort of massive effort” to hire part-time library assistants, who will be key in being able to open libraries on Saturdays. Applicants are doing their final round interviews on Saturday mornings “in the next month or so,” per Nichols.
“It’s really on the horizon for us in a very real and tangible way,” he said.
Some staff, though, have been frustrated with the overall pace of hiring. Goodman said despite the additional hiring, some staff have still been spread thin when vacancies caused by transfers or promotions aren’t filled quickly enough.
Liz Gardiner, an AFSCME DC 47 Local 2186 steward who works at the library’s main branch, worries the system may be trying to expand hours too quickly before it’s gotten staffing to a healthy level.
“It feels very rushed, even though it’s taking years to recover from pandemic cuts, and we’re still not there yet,” Gardiner said. “Trying to meet our community’s needs is so important, but I feel like maybe we’re about to fall off the edge of a cliff.”