When Philadelphia threatened to close 11 neighborhood libraries in response to 2008 budget cuts, Betty Beaufort was there, feet on the ground, pushing back against closures.
The looming threat swiftly drew hundreds of residents who united to advocate for the 54-branch system. By early 2009, the threat of closure was gone, advocates had prevailed, and Beaufort was named president of Friends of Queen Memorial Library in Point Breeze.
Since then, not much has changed for Beaufort, a feisty, crimson-haired grandmother now in her 70s, who still pounds the pavement in the name of full funding for libraries.
She’s one of the faces behind the most recent grassroots campaign for more funding — Fund Our Libraries — circulating petitions, meeting with Council members, assessing branch needs, and establishing a presence.
Beaufort said the system faces deteriorating facilities that cause frequent closures, systemwide understaffing, and lengthy wait times for materials. The branches are “all in dire need,” she said. “I know ours is. The elevator needs to be fixed. We need hot water.
“I can’t sit there and know when something is going on, and just not do nothing.”
On Monday, she and a dozen or so advocates attended a budget hearing before City Council, waving signs that read “Not Enough” and “No Excuses." They watched as Council members grilled library leaders, mostly about bias and discrimination in the system. Council members also asked about the system’s crumbling facilities and staff shortages.
The library’s current budget is nearly $49 million, with about $40 million from the city and additional support through state funding and private donations.
Many point to 2008 as the inception of the system’s budget woes. Between 2008 and 2010, the library budget dropped from $55 million to nearly $45 million. At the same time, the city’s contribution decreased from nearly $41 million to about $33 million, and continued to dwindle, until 2014, when the city began minor allocation increases.
Though advocates and City Council maintain that allocation was a drop in the bucket, Kenney’s announcement marked progress for the funding campaign that began last year.
“I done fought for this library with tooth and nail,” Beaufort said.
She’s not the only one with such determination.
Two years ago, Erica Zurer moved around the corner from the Ramonita de Rodriguez branch on the edge of Northern Liberties and Ludlow — and instantly recognized how important its presence was.
“One of the things I learned really early on was the literacy rate is so low,” she said.
Born and bred in New York, the mother of two worked in advocacy and organizing around public education. Before her retirement, she worked with advocacy groups and school boards and helped write the AIDS curriculum for the New York City Department of Education. She left New York for Philly to be closer to family — and for cheaper living.
On walks through her neighborhood, she’d often see the closed branch and a line of people waiting by the gates. Her own branch visits often left her wondering, “Why is there water dripping from the ceiling? Why is my library closed that many days?” she said.
Her experiences and new knowledge pushed her to try to volunteer at the branch, but she was directed to the Friends group, “and somewhere along the line it became, this is a systemic issue. It’s not just about one library,” she said. She and other advocates learned branches across the city suffered from staff shortages and facility emergencies.
Zurer soon became heavily involved, and joined the citywide organizing committee. Since then, she has collected petitions, met with Council members, and made dozens of phone calls.
”This was not an intentional way to learn” about the city’s neighborhoods, she said, “but it’s the best.”
Zurer plans to testify before City Council during budget hearings later this month, and said she’s encouraged because it seems advocates are “on the right road.”
”Our group is ready to be there all the way through [budget hearings] and for years to come," she said. "People are not going to leave after this budget.”
Beaufort’s oldest memories of the library begin with her 2008 advocacy, when she started visiting branches and learning of their indispensable value. That year, “the people made the difference,” she said.
“Everybody was amazed and could not understand why [the city was] doing this, and everybody came out to fight because you just can’t close a library. That’s your knowledge.”
Word traveled far and fast of the city’s plans, and soon, dozens of people gathered in First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street, where Beaufort said “everybody: doctors, lawyers … children” gathered to form groups that would organize. "Everybody was hot,” she said.
"People were really, really concerned about the livelihood, which is the libraries, the livelihood in our community,” said Beaufort, a Point Breeze resident for more than four decades.
She can’t help but notice differences between then and now. Today, she said, “people don’t have that same level of intensity,” and she thinks that the threat of closed libraries may have resonated more than the funding issues have.
“People back then had a different type of mind-set. … They could not see our libraries being closed, so they were willing to fight for that,” she said.