City libraries again facing possible cuts

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Alexandra Brock reads to her son Yannick, 3 at the Independence Branch of the Free Library. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Alexandra Brock's two children amassed a pile of books for nighttime reading.

Steven Tan perused Chinese-language papers for a waiter's job.

Bonnie Hagen Googled various topics of interest on a computer, pleasantly passing the time.

It was all part of the usual churn and bustle of midday activities at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Seventh Street.

But these days there is an ominous overtone, as once more the libraries face possible cuts, including the proposed reduction of branch schedules from five days to four.

And once more, patrons and library lovers feel the need to defend a cherished service that's imperiled.

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"It would be horrible to go to four days," said Joe Baker, president of the Friends of the Independence Branch Library, a library advocacy group. "To me, it's a sign the city is dying."

After the failure of Mayor Nutter's proposed sugary-drink tax, the city announced that it was considering cutting $2.5 million from the Free Library's budget, eliminating 53 jobs and reducing the schedules at the system's 54 branches.

On Friday, Michael DiBerardinis, the commissioner of parks and recreation and special adviser to the mayor for the Free Library, said the reduction of library workers "might be less than 53."

He added that "we're trying to make cuts and still protect core library services."

When asked whether the days of service will be reduced if Nutter's proposed $2.5 million in cuts are made, DiBerardinis said libraries are "certainly not going to be [open] five days a week."

Amy Dougherty, executive director of Friends of the Free Library, said she was outraged.

"The proportion of harm this will cause is a million times greater than the small shortfall" of $2.5 million, Dougherty wrote in an e-mail. "I do not believe that Mayor Nutter or City Council want such extreme punishment of our youth [by reverting] to four days."

Among some City Council members, the reduction seems excessive.

"The feeling here," said Council communications director Tony Radwanski, "is that the mayor doesn't have to cut $2.5 million from the libraries. Other economic efficiencies will handle the shortfall."

Council will take up the library matter this week.

Some on Council suggested that the core of the problem is the Free Library's policy that four people, including a guard, be present in every library.

A few members have said that one or more of the staff could be volunteers. Then there would be enough staff to keep all the libraries open five days a week.

That idea won't work, said Joe McPeak, associate director of the Free Library. "There are collective-bargaining clauses that restrict the use of volunteers," he said. "And we need four people to provide a minimum service."

In 2008, the city cut $8 million from the library's $41 million budget. At first, library director Siobhan Reardon decided that 11 branches needed to close permanently.

Philadelphia reacted with boisterous demonstrations and endless, angry blogs. Finally, a lawsuit by a private lawyer and three Council members reversed the branch closings.

But the cuts have taken their toll. From Oct. 5, 2009, through April 28, an average of 4.2 of the system's 54 branches have been closed every day due to staffing or building issues, library figures show.

Since then, said Reardon, "we've been able to stabilize the schedule at five days because we've been able to hire the full complement of guards."

But a further cut of $2.5 million and 53 positions will jeopardize overall library scheduling, said Reardon.

"I hope the cuts don't come to pass, but if they do, we'll put as accessible a schedule in place as possible," Reardon said.

The rolling closings of branches greatly affected library usage, McPeak said.

In a nine-month period of fiscal 2010, the number of visits by patrons to Philadelphia branch libraries was down 16 percent over a comparable period in fiscal 2009, McPeak said. In all of fiscal year 2009, there were 6.9 million visits.

And the amount of library materials checked out during that period was down 11 percent, he added.

The potential reduction from five days of operation to four was the topic of hushed conversation at the Independence branch.

"People love their libraries," Marilyn Greer, 56, of East Oak Lane, said as she searched for clerical jobs on a computer.

"The city can cut elsewhere," said Bonnie Hagen, 61, of Denville, N.J. "How many community spaces can you go to without opening your wallet?"

And Alexandra Brock, 42, of Center City, said she couldn't imagine being unable to take her 3-year-old son and 20-month-old daughter to the Independence branch.

"We come on rainy days, for story time, for any new books," she said. "It would absolutely be a loss if the city cuts back on libraries."

 


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.