Nearly 300 people gathered at the main branch of the Philadelphia library Saturday morning to protest proposed budget cuts that will drastically impact the future of Philadelphia’s public libraries.
The city plans to convert 20 branches into “McBranches,” express libraries without librarians. The premise behind the idea is that the city will save thousands of dollars by not having to pay librarians an annual salary. Library visitors will choose books and research on their own. Currently, no other major American city allows its libraries to be run by nonprofessionals. One protestor waved a sign that read, “Librarians without libraries? What’s next? Schools without teachers?”
Several guest speakers gave short speeches to senior citizens, adults and children. State Representative Kathy Mandarino lives in Roxborough, which already has an express branch. She urged everyone to write to Mayor Street and Gov. Rendell to let their voices be heard. There are nine other “McBranches,” which are only open four hours each day, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Three other branches are closed for repairs.
The branch closest to campus, located at 23rd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, no longer has weekend hours, and is only open until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and 6 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday.
Opponents argue that the reduced hours will negatively affect children, many of whom rely on the library as their only source of Internet access. State Senator Shirley Kitchen called the proposal an “assault against education,” noting that 41 percent of city homes do not have computers and some public schools do not even have libraries. The shortened hours will affect day care centers that regularly take children to the library for story time and special events.
The proposed elimination of librarians will bring an end to the telephone reference system, which allows Philadelphians to call a librarian from home to ask any questions related to reference, research or books. The telephone reference system has longer hours than most of the city’s libraries: Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“This is the most important card in my wallet,” proclaimed Sally Reed, executive director of Friends of Libraries USA, as she held up her library card amid applause and chants. “The city’s budget concerns will not be solved by cutting library funds. Only one percent of the city’s operating budget is spent on libraries.”
Before founding Friends of Libraries USA, Reed was a library director for over 20 years. Friends of Libraries USA, which has headquarters in Philadelphia, was founded “to preserve and strengthen libraries, and to create awareness and appreciation of library services.”
The protest drew attention from passersby, as many protestors blocked traffic on Vine Street for almost an hour. Librarians held signs that read, “Protect the people who protect our children” and “Open libraries = education = jobs.” Other signs included “A library without a librarian is just a room with books” and “Love your library,” appropriately written on red construction paper in the shape of a heart for Valentine’s Day. One protestor wore a skunk hat and held a sign, “Library cuts stink.”
Library friends and supporters were pleased at the results.
“I think it went very well. It drew a lot of attention to the cause,” said Gloria Easley, a teacher at Bache-Martin School, an elementary school in Fairmount.
A city council meeting will be held on March 17 to discuss the proposal. Several of the guest speakers, including Sally Reed, encouraged everyone to come. After the protest ended, one sign still lingered in the air. “When libraries close, every child is left behind.”
Stephanie Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.