Last month, Mayor Michael Nutter made an announcement that left the city’s bookworms shaking with anger.
Faced with a budget deficit as tall and looming as the Comcast building (and twice as hard to squint out of vision), he and his administration decided to make some drastic cuts.
In addition to laying off more than 200 city employees, trimming administrator salaries and suspending planned tax reductions, the Nutter administration announced plans to close swimming pools and ice skating rinks and shut down 11 of the city’s 54 Free Library branches.
At Temple – with Paley Library and the IBC Recreation Center just a hop, skip and jump away – this might not seem like such a big deal. But for those students who live off-campus – in Fishtown or in parts of South or West Philly – this could be a big pain in the arse.
Sometimes you just don’t feel like biking all the way up to campus to surf periodicals, you know? Or sometimes your Internet crashes and you need to check your Gmail. Or the book you’re looking for is checked out of Paley. If your local library is shuttered, where do you turn next?
Of course, college students are the least affected by the closings. Elementary schools without libraries of their own often rely on Philadelphia Free Library branches to provide their students with books to read. Adults looking for jobs often camp out at Free Library computers. Senior citizens with limited mobility aren’t going to take a bus to the next-closest library branch, and parents aren’t going to let their children walk several miles to check out a book or rent a movie. Nor will the children want to. Once going to the library becomes a hassle, there’s less motivation to go – and that means less motivation to read and learn. Is that what the city really wants – children who can’t access books, much less read them?
Needless to say, public outcry against the library closings has been fierce. Rallies around the city have seen huge turnouts, and I’m sure Siobhan Reardon – who just became president of the Philadelphia Free Library system this past June – is wishing she were back in Brooklyn, N.Y. managing the libraries there. If there’s one thing Philadelphians don’t like, it’s having something taken away from them, whether it’s a sports championship, a beloved local diner or 11 libraries.
“A library is the heart and soul of a neighborhood,” said Karen Lash, community organizer for the Friends of the Free Library, a local organization that supports the Philadelphia library system. “This is a quality of life issue.”
As Lash sees it, the Nutter administration is deciding which communities have access to knowledge and information and which don’t. This, she said, is unacceptable.
And it’s happened so quickly that the Friends of the Free Library haven’t had much time to come up with a game plan to keep the libraries open. If all goes as scheduled, the 11 branches in question could be shuttered by the end of the month.
Right now, the organization is asking Philadelphians to donate what they can to help support the cause. According to its Web site, if every Philadelphia resident donated $10, the libraries could be saved. Of course, it’s hard to imagine every Philadelphia resident shelling out $10 – not exactly petty change – in this already-tough holiday shopping season, but if some people give a dollar or two and others give hundreds, well, it’s bound to even out, right?
In addition, philebrity.com (the first blog I visit on my daily Web cruise) is donating 100 percent of the proceeds from its Second Annual Non-Denominational, Completely Secular Xmas Pageant to – you guessed it – the Friends of the Free Library’s $10 Challenge. There’s a gift idea for you: buy your nearest and dearest tickets to the pageant and you could help thousands of people, young and old, continue to read, learn and grow at their local libraries.
Anna Hyclak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.