Give Philly libraries the resources they deserve

Librarian Chera Kowalski tends to an overdose victim recently outside the McPherson Square Library.

One of the more viral stories in the last few months has been an Inquirer story by Mike Newall about Kensington librarians who have been trained to administer life-saving drugs to overdosing addicts.

Narcan-toting librarians saving lives is clearly a tale that illustrates our horrifying opioid epidemic. This epidemic is a nationwide problem, and the national media have taken note of the library’s response. It’s a shocking story, but given the vital role that public libraries have carved out in communities in the last few decades, not a complete surprise. In fact, libraries have stepped forward to help reweave the social safety net, providing many of the services that people need, and Philadelphia’s own library system has been at the forefront of this modern age of libraries.

So when are we going to return the favor and start administering life-saving money to the library system?

As in so many areas, Philadelphia boasts an excellent, forward-thinking system that has blossomed in inverse proportion to our pathetic financial support.

Libraries like ours have long ago given up their role as simply book repositories, and have become digital hubs, literacy trainers, havens for kids after school, resources for job seekers, language programs for non-English speakers, homework help for students,  and vital hubs of communities.

The operating budget for the Free Library of Philadelphia, according to its most recent 2016 annual report, is just shy of $48 million.  That’s $8 million less than what the libraries got about 10 years ago, in the FY08 budget.

Ironically, that was also the year that then-Mayor Michael Nutter found out what the community thinks of its libraries when he suggested closing 11 branches in the devastating 2008-09 budget cycle. Public outrage was fierce, and he ultimately had to back down.

Still, while branches were saved, they weren’t exactly indulged. Consider how other lesser cities fund their libraries: Seattle, which boasts about half our population, gives its library system $50 million a year. The budget for Boston, which is even smaller than Seattle, is only slightly shy of our own, at $40 million. San Francisco funds its libraries to the tune of $117 million.

This is a sad and familiar refrain for too many of Philadelphia’s treasured institutions. But this one rankles in particular because this is where libraries were invented (by Benjamin Franklin, who founded the Library Company 286 years ago).

The $500 million Rebuild program announced by Mayor Kenney late last year will benefit libraries as well as parks and rec centers.  But that money is intended to be capital improvements: fixing boilers, roofs, and windows of neglected buildings. Funded with a combination of city loans, capital funds, and an infusion from William Penn Foundation, this is essentially to catch up on long-deferred maintenance.  It will bring libraries up to “inhabitable” status, especially during summer months, when some branches have to close because of outdated heating/cooling systems. But these updates are not the same as healthy and ongoing financial backing.  That will take longer, and will require noisy public support. Now that it has become a matter of life and death, the stakes are even higher.