Free Library of Philadelphia May Close

The Free Library of Philadelphia, a system of libraries which includes over fifty branches, may be closing on October 2nd due to a “state budget crisis and legislation impasse.” Lights off, doors locked. All 54 locations. The library has already cut staff, streamlined work flows, reduced hours, and shuffled remaining staff in order to try keep libraries open, as reported in the Director’s Testimony to City Council on FY2010 Operating Budget. Some speculate that this announcement is a merely a publicity stunt but give the testimony a skim. FLP has been operating as if under near financial meltdown for at least half a year now,  in spite of a dramatic increase in circulation numbers over the last three years (22.5%) and a 50% increase in the number of library card registrations for teens compared to one year ago.

Without the necessary budget, within a year, the broken windows of these libraries will be boarded, the grounds will be overgrown. We’ll look back and think, yeah, the closing of the Parkway Central Library? That was pretty tragic. But the closing of the smallest branches in the most impoverished neighborhoods of Philadelphia? Catastrophic.

Dear reader, go to your library this weekend. Take family, take friends. Explore the collections: books, movies, music, graphic novels, video games. Check out the library programming and events. Drop in on an open meeting of a local community organization. And then STOP and look around. What is this worth?

Think about it. How much is a library card worth? Estimate your card’s value using a variety of value calculators for various regions (Google keyword search “library value calculator”). My card is worth about $230 per month. For every dollar in taxes, I get a return of about $60. But I mislead you. This number is not an accurate measure of the value of my library card.

Libraries aren’t stuffy, static spaces built to contain collections of THINGS. Libraries are the locus of community intersection and interaction. Books and films are cold, dumb objects on the shelf- until someone interacts with them. IDEAS form. And the really great thing? These ideas are borne out of us. Even after that book or film or CD is returned to its rightful place on the shelf, we take those ideas out into our communities. We might share the idea, the idea gets passed around, tested, modified, and maybe this ideas spawns other ideas. And your world gets bigger.

I don’t know how many of you have worked with underprivileged kids in libraries. It’s rough. The politics, the budget cuts, the apathy- I think just about any librarian who has been there can tell you: we go to work to watch that 12 year-old latchkey kid’s world grow BIGGER.

Aren’t we all feeling a bit close these days? Money is tight. Jobs are scarce. Stress is high. And there are a lot of people on TV talking and yelling. And louder still are their whispers: “It’s hopeless, this mess.” And the people in charge press in closer still. “No, no,” they whisper. And we wake up one morning and we find that our worlds are… smaller.

I realize that there are many battles to choose from these days both nationally and locally (Philly’s budget crisis is much larger than library closures- I’m certain Philly police and fire fighters are writing posts similar to this one for the benefit of their stations, which the city desperately needs to support). Maybe to some, library closures doesn’t seem like a big deal in comparison. That may even be true- if the Free Library of Philadelphia wasn’t the 6th largest public library in the U.S. (23rd largest in the nation, when including academic libraries) with 7 million visits a year. If we allow closures to happen on this scale, then which city library system will be next? What kind of cascade effect can we expect on our local libraries?

While I’m doubtful as to the outcome of aforementioned worthy fights nationally-health care, peace, green energy- THIS fight I know we can win both in Philly and in our local communities.

Residents of Philadelphia, save your libraries. Start here.

As for the rest of us, my fellow Americans, we will vote as we always have- with our plastic.

No interest. No annual fee. Your library card.