The Library in the City: a Panel Discussion

In conjunction with the release of a new report, Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative (of which I am a part) is hosting a panel discussion this Wednesday night on the role of the Free Library of Philadelphia and other big-city libraries in the 21st century. YPP favorite Irv Ackelsberg is among the featured guests.

In the face of increasing and changing demands brought on by the recession and the Internet, public libraries across the country are facing the same questions about their future: where should they focus energy and funds? How will they handle their evolving role as a key provider of social services and government resources? Will this changing role alter the way local officials, who provide a majority of library funding, view the library?

The panel discussion will explore these and other issues discussed in the report. Mayor Michael A. Nutter will give remarks, and WHYY’s Dave Davies will moderate. Panelists include the Honorable James R. Roebuck, Jr., member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for Environmental and Community Resources and special advisor to the mayor on the Free Library of Philadelphia; Irv Ackelsberg, president of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia; and Thomas Galante, president and CEO of the Queens Borough Public Library.

The event is Wednesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. at Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street. It is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.
Visit to register.
Read the report here.

Next Step Toward the Next Governor

Harrisburg should figure a lot in progressive politics in 2010... since we need to win there in order for things to get better in Philly.

That makes the governor's race priority #1.

Philly For Change is voting to endorse a gubernatorial candidate tonight at 7 at Meetup.

You know the players: local former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, former Philly mayoral hopeful Tom Knox, Pittsburgh's presumed frontrunner Dan Onorato, big vote-getter Auditor General Jack Wagner, and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty.

Come out tonight and help set a progressive agenda for the next governor. For the price of admission (free), you also get Brady talking about Marcellus Shale, Friends of the Free Library's Amy Dougherty with a Libraries Update, and a big talk about that other big 2010 race, the one for U.S. Senate.

One year and five days ago...

As we fought with server issues, I missed the chance to note that on December 23 we passed the one year anniversary of the library lawsuit being filed in Common Pleas Court.

So much had to come together for that whole thing to work, including:

  • The outrage of citizens all over the city at the announced closures;
  • The botched and ever changing rationales of the administration;
  • People organizing all over the city;
  • And finally, seven brave women and AFSCME signing on to a lawsuit, joined a day later by Councilman Green.

I sat in the Courtroom as the hearing concluded; it was incredibly tense. As Judge Fox started making her ruling, it was really not clear who was about to win. Then, amidst a Hollywood like mix of murmuring, buzz and then loud applause, she said something like this:

The decision to close these eleven branch libraries is more than a response to a financial crisis; it changes the very foundation of our City. Two of the libraries scheduled to close, Haddinton and Holmesburg, will result in a reversion of the property back to the original grantor because of deed restrictions. No one questions the economic crisis which has rocked both the City and the Nation. However, we are a Nation of hope. A "crisis" evokes something temporary. Defendants argued there were more than enough libraries in Philadelphia. "Philadelphia has more libraries than any other city in the country." Our library system is more than a century old yet in three short months an economic crisis results in permanently closing eleven branches. This court does not envy the Mayor and the tough decisions he has had to make in this financial crisis. Yet, as this court is bound to follow the law, so is the Mayor. The permanent closing of neighborhood branch libraries is changing the very structure of the Free Library of Philadelphia and not just responding to a "financial crisis."

Fast forward a year, and not all is well with the libraries, by any means. But, they have survived, poised to rebound at a time when budgets and tax revenues return to normal. And, one year later, I think the Mayor would agree that libraries- Libraries!- have become the third rail in Philadelphia politics.

No Cuts to Essential Services!

The Coalition to Save the Libraries, Neighborhood Networks, and a growing coalition of community groups and labor unions are coming together to demand no cuts to essential services.

We believe that by creating a tax system where everyone pays their fare share we can avoid cuts to libraries, rec centers, fire stations, and other essential services.

The attached flyer has our demands and a menu of options to raise revenue without putting the burden on the backs of poor and working Philadelphians or small businesses.

We are encouraging labor unions and community groups to sign on and individuals to call their city council people.

This is an opportunity for all of us to come together and influence how this financial crisis gets addressed. One option is to slash crucial services. Another option is create temporary tax increases for those who can afford to pay more.

February 14: I Love My Library Day!

I Love My Library Day, Feb. 14, 2009

This Saturday is Valentines Day, and what Philadelphia institution is more deserving of a little love than our beleagured branch libraries?

Celebrate Philadelphia's great public libraries at the following branches this Saturday, february 14, 2009. See below for an earlier event at the Ogontz Branch

Haddington - 446 N. 65th Street
1-3pm : Arts & Crafts for the Whole Family

Fishtown - 1217 E. Montgomery Avenue
3-4:30pm : Library Celebration & Arts Workshop

Kingsessing - 1201 S. 51st Street
1-3pm : Friends of the Library Celebration

Wadsworth - 1500 Wadsworth Avenue
2-4pm : Arts & Crafts for the Whole Family

Durham - 3320 Haverford Avenue
12-3pm : We Love Our Library Fun Day!

Queen Memorial - 1201 S. 23rd Street
1pm : Valentine's Day Poetry Party

FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13th* - 6017 Ogontz Avenue
Ogontz - 3-4:30pm - Valentine's Party

Libraries are Open, and Other Updates

Let's catch up:

First, Catherine Lucey reports that all 11 libraries scheduled to be shuttered are open today:

Well, PhillyClout just called all 11 branches and got through to librarians at every location who said that the libraries are operating on normal schedules today – and will continue to do so until they get word otherwise.

Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox ruled in favor of seven library patrons and three City Council members who sued Nutter last week, citing a 20-year-old ordinance requiring Council approval to close city buildings.

The city plans to appeal the judge’s ruling, but will wait until after a full written order from Fox, which is expected on Monday

As Catherine mentions, the City will appeal next week when they get the full ruling from Judge Fox. Michael Matza of the Inqy reported the same thing, and fleshed out Nutter's latest talking point, that the lawsuit has hurt the chance for the libraries to become 'knowledge centers.'

Beyond the ruling's impact on the balance of power between the city's executive and legislative branches, Nutter said yesterday, it hurts his efforts to get private funding to reopen some of the targeted branches as community based learning centers.

"This ruling runs the risk of significantly hampering our efforts to get the re-use plans in order," he said, "because it has now caused a chill in some of those discussions and created a tremendous amount of confusion with potential funders."

Among the options the administration is exploring is to have the funding channeled through nonprofit community-development corporations and other private sources.

Although few details have emerged about the idea to "repurpose" the targeted libraries as "knowledge centers," at least one proposal calls for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit with offices on Frankford Ave., to take over the Fishtown Community Library as a "nascent model of the library of the future" under a long-term lease.

Let's deal with this piece by piece. First, the article mentions that NKCDC, a well regarded CDC, is going to run a "library of the future." Are they going to employ librarians? Do they have any expertise on running libraries?

Second, it goes unmentioned, but, who is most likely to be funding a library in Fishtown? Sugarhouse Casino, of course. Great.

Third, the mayor would have us believe that lawsuit is holding this all up, because he now has to get a vote from City Council. But the City Charter says that the city can only sell or lease city owned property with... approval of City Council. So the obstacle that has been put in front of him- a vote- is the same exact one that he already had. Surely he was planning on going to Council for a vote there, right?

Anyway, more great reporting on the issue from the Inquirer and Daily News:

Kia Gregory went to the Fumo branch in South Philly, and got reactions from patrons about the reprieve. (There are great photos, too.)

Jeff Shields on the ad-hoc coalition that sprouted up in defense of libraries. His basic thesis, that after Obama's election (and maybe Nutter's too), people expected more, and when they didn't get it they took that energy and organized, is a good one.

Jill Porter on the whole thing.

Happy new year, everybody.

UPDATE: Coalition to Save the Libraries Statement on Court Victory

Here's the statement the Coalition to Save the Libraries sent out to press just now.

Hope everyone can make it to the 3.30 PM celebration at Kingsessing Library tomorrow!


BREAKING NEWS: Judge Idee Fox rules against Mayor Nutter's decision to close branch libraries without the approval of City Council.

Contact: Katrina Clarke (215) 272-7091
Milena Velis (215) 200-3876

The Coalition will sponsor a New Year's Eve celebration of the past, present and future of Philadelphia's libraries at the Kingsessing branch, 51st and Kingsessing, beginning at 3:30 pm, Wednesday, December 31st.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

I watched the Eagles-Skins game last week, and like most Eagles fans, proceeded to curse at the TV over and over as Andy Reid's pass fetish doomed another Eagles season. The season was dead, and for the first time ever, I was ready for Reid to pack up a couple of hoagies and hit the road.

But then, in a bizarrely impossible sequence of events, the Iggles were rescued by a terrible Raiders team beating our frenemies, Jon Gruden and Jeff Garcia, and then promptly destroyed the Cowboys by 38 points. Somehow, the Eagles are very much alive in the playoff race.

I wondered after the Phillies won if it would make me less of a cynical fan. Uh, nope. I also wondered what effect the win would have on our city's psyche in general. But, the day after the bestPhiladelphiaweekever, with the Phillies win, the parade and then Obamarama, we got an early gift of Christmas coal, when Mayor Nutter announced that he was instituting savage cuts to city services.

Most of those cuts have played themselves out, with layoffs, with cuts to Fairmount Park, with community college funding shrinking. And yet, one small decision of the Mayor- to force a 20% cut on the library system, thereby forcing the closure of 11 branches- has stuck in the craw of Philadelphians like nothing else. Across the City, Philadelphians have angrily demanded that the Mayor change course. However, for a reason that I cannot fathom, the Mayor refuses to even consider budging. It appears that stubbornness is being mistaken for steadfastness.

Luckily however, not only is the Mayor's decision to kill 11 library branches short-sighted, it is illegal. And so, tomorrow morning, 7 brave citizens, along with the union representing librarians and three members of City Council, will stand up to the Mayor, and demand that he follow the law.

The Phillies won. Obama won. The Eagles were just handed a bizarrely fortunate gift. Will the children of Philadelphia get their own miracle?

Come see it unfold: City Hall, room 426, 10AM.

Councilmembers Green, Blackwell and Kelly File Suit to Keep Libraries Open

City Councilmembers Bill Green, Jannie Blackwell and Jack Kelly today filed a lawsuit to compel the Mayor and the Free Library to comply with their duty under state and local law to seek City Council approval before closing eleven neighborhood library branches. A hearing on the case is scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m. in Courtroom 426.

The petition papers have been posted as a PDF here.

Seth Levi
Office of Councilman Bill Green

Help Us Return the Mayor's Lump of Coal

Tomorrow morning at 10 AM, Neighborhood Networks members will be gathering to give back to the Mayor the big lump of coal that he's delivered to the people of this City by way of library closings. Along with the coal, we'll have hundreds of statements and signatures from people around the City who can't believe how he's trying to ruin this season, and seasons to come by closing our libraries. If you'd like to personally take a lump of coal back to the Mayor, come meet us at 10 AM at the Northeast Corner of City Hall.

Who knows, Scrooge changed his mind; so may the Mayor. And if you'd like to sign our petition, and leave a few words for the Mayor, there's still time. Just go here:

The Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity will hold a library rally on 12/22/08 at 1:00 p.m. at the Main Library

What: Rally to express opposition to the administration's plan to close 11 libraries
Who: The Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity
When: Monday, December 22, 2008 at 1:00 p.m.
Where: Main Library on the Ben Franklin Parkway

Below is a letter from the Black Clergy regarding the rally (a PDF version of the letter is attached to this post).

Please come out to the rally to support the libraries!

Seth Levi
Office of Councilman Bill Green


Greetings Co-Laborer and Concerned Citizen:

Due to the increasing public outcry over the proposed library closings in the City of Philadelphia as a way of dealing with the City's budget deficit, Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity finds that we must stand in opposition. Having considered the process and rationale as put forth by the Mayor's office, we still find the proposal highly objectionable.

Consider the following points:

Branch closings are not about the need for budget cuts.

Siobhan Reardon is very new to Philadelphia. She was brought here by the Free Library's Board and Trustees to finish the work of fundraising for the Moshe Safdie designed expansion of the Central Branch. Immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia she made an incognitio tour of all branches with a predetermined agenda of closing "weak" libraries (her words). The idea is that for years budget cutting has meant that the labor pool is stretched thin across the FLP system. With less library branches, services can be concentrated at the "strong" branches with the smaller labor pool that the city is able to fund.

I don't mean to put too fine a point on it, but from a highly educated middle class perspective most of these 11 branches are "weak" because their patron base is either too poor or too powerless to demand better services. While at the same time, the Central Branch or other higher profile "strong" branches have to share labor and material resources with these "weak" branches. This makes fundraising difficult if Central, City Institute, Chestnut Hill, Lovett, or any number of Northeast branches don't satisfy the needs of the wealthiest and most powerful Philadelphians.

The financial crisis has mostly served as a cover for a decision that had already been made by Reardon shortly after coming to Philadelphia. This is why we are getting such confusing opposition to the Friends' demand of a shared burden of reduced services, or why there seems to be such a lack of transparency. The only thing the city is forced by financial circumstance to do for budget cutting is to lay off workers (librarians, paraprofessionals, guards, etc) since their salaries and benefits make up the majority of the costs. Librarians and our professional associations will be hostile to the idea of managing libraries without degreed professionals, but that probably isn't even necessary.

There's also the canard that since Philadelphia's population has declined since its peak at 2 million in 1960, we can afford to "right-size". However, Philadelphia only had 39 branches in 1960. Some may say given that fact Philadelphia is then even more over saturated with libraries. But that's ridiculous. Several generations of tax-dollars have gone into an investment in our communities during the ensuing 50 year decline in population. Now we are now trying to squander investment in building up our neighborhoods despite decline, mostly because the FLP Administration is now committed to redistributing library services upward. It's theft! The intent of building branches from 1891 to 1960 and beyond was to build branches for neighborhoods, not simply to maintain some bogus national level of libraries per arbitrary geo-political boundary. Our system is being compared with young sun-belt suburban "cities" where everyone drives and frankly more people have attained higher degrees and reasonably could be said to not need to use "the People's University" as frequently as those on the other side of the wealth (let alone digital) divide. That we have the system that we do should not only be a point of pride, it should also be recognized as one of the few non-dehumanizing institutions of the "State" in many neighborhoods that poor people actually enjoy interacting with.

The administrators claim they want to create bookmobiles as a new innovative 21st century way of better serving the communities who will suffer when their branch closes. But book mobiles are really the ultimate insult to a dense urban community such as ours. They're better suited for rural and perhaps third-world situations where communities are too sparsely populated or resource-poor to be able to build libraries. We may be in a global financial crisis but do we need start dismantling our civic infrastructure at this point? The administration is basically saying Kingsessing should be treated like rural North Dakota: "Too few readers, too few tax dollars to sustain a library? Let's send the bookmobile every other week to the urban prairie we just bulldozed under Neighborhood Transformation Initiative!" Philadelphians paid for these buildings or we fought for them or they were given as gifts, we can't let the administrators take them away just to put some polish on branches in the most functional neighborhoods.

The Either/Or Trap

The choice that conventional wisdom posits is: tax cuts or service cuts. Again, if we get away from the taxation of mobile things (jobs, capital, commerce) then we can avoid the trap of assuming there is a linear debate and and linear way to act: run from one end of the line to another. There isn't. We live in a bumpy, roundish granular world.

The city can, right now, shift its budget needs away from taxation of the disappearing things, and tax instead that which will never disappear: land and its inherent value.

I propose taking the tax breaks that privilege grants: Comcast, Cira Centre, Sunoco, etc. and extend that same non-taxation of labor and capital to all Phladelphians. It's called land value tax.

We explain and demonstrate this on our new project

Unless one believes that vacant land owners and waters of valuable land deserve total love and hugs, a land value tax is something people can use to jump off that defined little linear path.

It's Our City Interview with Mike Nutter

This is how Mike Nutter ended his It's Our City interview with Dave Davies (around Minute 42 on the video):

People will have to decide. You know, do you want to be a populist, or do you want to be a leader? Do you just want to be talking? Or do you want to show strength and leadership under very difficult circumstances. Leadership requires you to make tough choices, not just run your mouth.

So, I think that were more than willing and open. We don't assume that we have all the ideas or all of the answers. As long as people want to engage in a dialogue that is legitimate about how you want to close massive holes...

First, the very first definition of populist that comes up is this:

A supporter of the rights and power of the people.

And, so, that would be a bad thing to be, for a big city Mayor? (Let's assume that he more means a demagogue, and move on.)

Second, Nutter is willing to assume that he doesn't have all the answers? So why do we have town hall meetings where the Administration is basically saying that the cuts are the cuts are the cuts. (And that, of course, is after after making those cuts in secret, after withholding the super-duper secret information that were theoretically used to make them.) Where does he actually ask people for their ideas, and where does he show he will consider them? Certainly not at town hall meetings.

This whole thing is beyond bizarre. And, really, if I hear the Office Space Routine one more time...

And, Oliver said, one of the administration's primary points is that the library system is too big and needs to be pruned.

...I am going to flip out. So really, they wanted to cut libraries all along? I guess I missed Candidate Nutter's plan to cut libraries during the Mayoral campaign?

From his campaign website, in fact, we get this:


In 2005, the City announced that twenty branch libraries would shift to half-day service and many head librarians would be laid-off. Library supporters protested the "reorganization plan." Councilman Nutter called for an investigation to evaluate the Library System and to find additional funding in order to restore this essential City service. After a five hour hearing, which was attended by a capacity crowd of students, library supporters and employees, restoring library funding became a critical issue during that year's budget discussions. City Council eventually rejected the budget cut, restored funding, and returned all branch libraries to full-day service with head librarians.

Is that just down the memory hole? Are we not supposed to remember?

I voted for Mike Nutter to become Mayor because I thought that while I would have some ideological differences with him, his desire for openness, transparency and citizen participation would provide enough buffer to make sure that, whether he liked it or not, he would be...

A supporter of the rights and power of the people.

Thus far, this has not really worked out like I had hoped.

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