Can we afford to keep running a Philadelphia Free Library system where all but two libraries are dark on Sundays, and half of the rest have no weekend hours?

 

That was among the questions debated at a forum I moderated last night to discuss the findings of a Pew Charitable Trusts study comparing Philadelphia's libraries to those of 14 other big cities. The study found that Philadelphia was suffering from many of the same problems as other cities - budget cuts in a time of increased demand, especially for services like Internet access.

Free Library President Siobhan Reardon said that with the budget cuts she's had to take, she simply can't staff the weekend branch hours she'd like. She's opted to keep them open weekday afternoons when school kids need them.

But among the people at the forum was Tom Galante, a real dynamo who runs the library system in Queens, New York. He's managed to run small branches with fewer staff than the minimum of four that are required to run Philadelphia libraries.

There was discussion of using volunteers to expand hours, and whether that will ever happen with unionized library staff; what to do about the aging, expensive and under-used central library; and what the library of the future will look like, with so much of our information arriving digitally these days.

I was impressed with the brains and good will of those running the libraries, and espcially the librarians in the audience, many of them attending the national convention here.

It's distressing to see that although Mayor Nutter abanonded his original proposal to close 11 libraries, staff cuts led to shorter hours and frequent unscheduled closings when not enough staff was available at  branches.

Libraries and recreation centers are simply more important in struggling Philadelphia neighborhoods than a lot of places, and I hope the city and the libraries' neighborhood supporters can find some creative ways to make the most of this great resource.

You can help by getting involved with the Frends of the Free Libary. 

You can read the Pew study here.