The Philadelphia Story: 11 City Libraries Fight Closure
by Bill Greenwood
Patrons at the 11 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia that were slated to close on Jan. 1 are breathing a sigh of relief, at least temporarily. Such cost-cutting initiatives are showing up more and more nationwide as cities and towns trim municipal budgets to keep pace with the economic downturn. But such initiatives are rarely voiced without a fight.
On Dec. 30, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox ruled that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter “is required to seek the approval of City Council” before shutting the branches down. The libraries will now stay open until at least June 30, says Sandy Horrocks, vice president for communications and development at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The 11 branches were to be shuttered as part of Nutter’s plan to close a $1 billion gap over 5 years in the city’s budget. However, two separate lawsuits were filed against the mayor—one by seven city residents and AFSCME District Council 47 (a union that represents municipal workers) and another by city council people Bill Green, Jannie Blackwell, and Jack Kelly. In her opinion, Fox agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that a city ordinance, Section 16-203 of the Philadelphia Code, requires the mayor to seek council approval before permanently closing city facilities.
“If this court takes Defendant’s argument to its logical conclusion, the Mayor, without City Council participation, could close every branch library in the City,” Fox writes in the opinion. “This court finds 16-203 to be a valid ‘check’ and not one which interferes with the Mayor’s executive and administration duties and responsibilities.”
The city has appealed the ruling, with Nutter issuing a statement saying Fox’s decision “fundamentally alters the relationship between the Mayor and City Council.”
“It appears that the ruling excluded any consideration of the validity of the City Council ordinance on which the case was based,” Nutter says in the statement. “It ignored that the Charter allows the Mayor to make operational decisions and affords him the ability to run the City. In effect, the ruling would make every operating decision a political one.”
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania was scheduled to hear the appeal on Feb. 25, and a decision is not expected for an additional 1 or 2 months, according to Horrocks. Because of the potentially long time before a ruling is issued, the mayor decided to keep the branches open through June.
“Rather than changing schedules, especially in the middle of a school year, we thought we would try and stay with some kind of permanent schedule through June,” Horrocks says.
Currently, branch hours are unchanged, but the Free Library is being forced to close several branches each day because of a staff shortage, according to Horrocks. A consistent schedule is in the works, but she could not say whether it would call for all branches to be open 3, 4, or 5 days a week.
“Every facility will be open,” she says. “The hours will be a bit less, but they’re working now on how to redeploy people.”
The City Reacts
The plan to close the libraries, which was announced in November 2008, has drawn criticism throughout the city, according to Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which opposes the closings. She says the organization has held 12 rallies and collected 20,000 signatures on petitions to stop the closures.
“I think the citizens of Philadelphia have reacted loudly and clearly that they do not believe that libraries should close,” she says. “This goes for citizens wherever their library is, whether they’re ones that are slated to be closed or not.”
Dougherty says closing the 11 branches would have dire consequences for those who rely on them, especially with the slumping economy. She says families who can no longer afford internet service won’t be able to use the library’s connection to look for jobs, and those who cannot afford books won’t be able to use the library’s collection.
“Library needs are constant, and they increase during economic downturns,” Dougherty says. “Everybody knows this. So, it’s a real concern.”
According to Horrocks, all of the 11 branches on the chopping block are within 2 miles of at least two other branches that will remain open, so residents will still have access to all of the same services they had before. However, Dougherty said the walk to many of these branches is a dangerous one.
“They could be across large, dangerous streets; they could cross crime, drug-infested neighborhoods,” she says. “There are many, many parents, including parents of teenagers, who will not let their children go to a library far away. It effectively closes library services for a community.”
Dougherty also says that many of the libraries to be closed are located in residential neighborhoods, leading to concerns about the buildings falling into disuse. According to her, this could lead to an increase in vandalism and crime.
“You’re going to be living across the street from a city building that’s closed, and who’s going to take care of it?” she says. “It causes an enormous amount of problems. We are concerned about it.”
Camila Alire, president-elect of the American Library Association (ALA), also responded to the closings on her blog at http://camilaalire.wordpress.com. She says in the blog that Nutter’s attempts to classify the branches as “knowledge centers” and “community-based learning centers”—phrases she sees as “the beginning of justification for cutting libraries in his city”—do not change the fact that “they are still libraries with library employees providing access to information that help the ‘community’ with new knowledge.”
“As our economy keeps tanking, there are going to be more of these measures introduced by city administrators, school administrators, and high education administrators,” she writes in the blog. “And, now more than ever, ALA and its members are going to have to fight these measures and turn the spigot of advocacy on much stronger.”
Despite the backlash, Horrocks says the Free Library is working hard to provide the best possible service it can to its patrons. She says she is happy to keep all of the branches open, but she hopes the city won’t be forced to reduce library hours at all branches to only a few days per week as a result.
“I think as long as we can continue library services for everybody, that’s terrific,” she says. “I think what would be unfortunate is if the entire system had to go down to just a couple of days a week. Then everyone in the city just has very limited service. So, it’s a challenge. There is no good solution, I’m afraid.”