Kristi Bennett went to the Fishtown Community Library about noon on Monday to pick up a few novels she had on hold. She yanked on the door handle to no avail, then noticed the sign: The branch was closed due to a building emergency.
Heavy rain over the weekend caused multiple sections of the already water-stained ceiling to collapse and damage each floor of the three-story branch.
Ceiling tiles fell onto public-use computers, in the staff kitchen, and in the third-floor multipurpose room, used mostly for public programming. Rainwater drenched the first floor. On Thursday, the branch was still closed, and will remain that way until Sunday, the library’s website said.
Its roof had leaked on and off for about five years, said Bennett, president of Friends of the Fishtown Community Library. It’s been patched before, she said, but “the reality is, we need a new roof.”
The issues there are a reflection of struggles across the 54-branch Free Library system. Many neighborhood sites face frequent facility emergencies, including leaking roofs, plumbing issues, and broken HVAC systems, but maintenance fixes have long been deferred due to years of underfunding, advocates say. In 2018, the system had 396 building closures due to facility emergencies, causing a loss of 2,260 service hours, according to the Mayor’s Office.
The Free Library budget is about $49 million. In March, Mayor Jim Kenney proposed an additional $2.5 million for the system, with $500,000 of that for maintenance and facility fixes. Advocates and City Council members have said that allocation falls short of what the system needs to thrive. Council won’t approve the budget until June.
“Our library is not the only one that is having major building problems like this,” Bennett said. “It’s just the most recent example of what the funding shortage is meaning to the libraries."
The “small but mighty" branch in Fishtown is a community hub, where visitors often know each other, Bennett said. In 2018, it was visited nearly 26,000 times, according to the library system, and offered more than 250 programs in 2018, from yoga to cooking.
The Free Library wrote in a tweet on Tuesday that Kenney and Council President Darrell L. Clarke have “made sure funding is available to address emerging issues at [Fishtown] while we work with residents and city leaders to develop a long-term plan for the site.”
Free Library records show that the Fishtown branch submitted roof-related service requests on Aug. 14 and Nov. 6, 2018. Library maintenance responded to both.
But advocates told Clarke in early March about facility emergencies and urgent repairs needed in libraries in his district — including Fishtown, Cecil B. Moore, Lillian Marrero, Ramonita G. de Rodriguez, and Widener — after he visited Fishtown on Feb. 19.
Multiple advocates say Clarke offered to use funds from a discretionary fund for improvements, but there was “no movement,” Bennett said. Her group delivered a letter in mid-March that estimated a full roof repair, or replacement, would cost $350,000. The group again has called on Clarke to address severe facility problems.
Clarke was unavailable for an interview, according to his spokesperson, Jane Roh, but he tweeted Wednesday, “I share concerns of residents that the #Fishtown community has outgrown their aging library facility.”
Bennett said her branch will need more than a fixed roof now.
Library property-management staff and a professional water-cleanup contractor have both visited the branch, said library spokesperson Kaitlyn Foti. Foti said the roof drain failed over the weekend, and the library will replace ceiling tiles, repair dry wall, and dry out the carpet, Foti said.
Some neighborhood libraries, including Fishtown, are expected eventually to be fixed through Kenney’s Rebuild initiative.