Northeast: Free Library System Depends on Federal Funding

Computer literacy classes at the Northeast Regional Branch of the Free Library system generally draw in from four to 12 participants.

Frank Peterson interacts with patrons of the Free Library System on a daily basis. Peterson, the head of the newspapers and magazines department at the Northeast Regional Branch, has been working at the second-largest branch of the Free Library near the intersection of Cottman and Bustleton avenues for more than 30 years.

“I’m an old-timer,” Peterson said with a sheepish laugh. “I’m from the Northeast. I grew up around here.”

Frank Peterson, a 30-year employee of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said patrons of the Northeast Regional Branch commonly use the computer lab for job hunting.

Peterson, whose demeanor mirrors the library’s calm atmosphere he says community members have continually appreciated, has also seen the library system through its tumultuous battle for additional resources–and to remain functioning.

Political Connections

Last fall, library officials crossed their fingers and lobbied the state legislature against the prospect that the city would have to lay off approximately 3,000 city employees and force the closing of all 54 branches in the library system.

The library, along with the City of Philadelphia Division of Technology, applied for federal broadband stimulus funding, requesting $35 million–$21 million for infrastructure and $14 million for adoption programs. According to the Division of Technology, 48 percent of Philadelphians do not have broadband Internet access in their homes.

In July 2009, President Barack Obama passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, granting 66 initiatives nationwide with $795 million in stimulus funding.

Library officials hoped to use at least $30 million from the ARRA to fund a $70 million groundbreaking on a $175 million renovation to the Philadelphia Parkway Central Library, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.

The city was awarded $6.4 million in those stimulus funds to improve broadband access and enhance computer skills among disadvantaged communities, $400,000 of which was granted to the Free Library system.

Alix Gerz, director of communications and brand marketing for the Free Library system, said while exact details have not yet been ironed out for fund allocations, the funds will eventually allow the library to deploy a traveling laptop computer lab and a “techmobile” education center, which will grant underserved neighborhoods with Internet access and computer literacy classes.

Computer literacy classes at the Northeast Regional Branch of the Free Library system generally draw in from four to 12 participants.

“[During] the time since the funds have been awarded, the project team has been meeting, pulling librarians and community partners together to find out where the best locations [for the mobile computer labs] would be,” Gerz said. “They’re really intended to go in community touch points, like churches and community centers. The end goal will really be to introduce people to the services to use the local branches.”

Bridging Communities

Peterson said the computer literacy classes hosted at the Northeast Regional Branch usually bring in anywhere from four to 12 people per class.

Class topics range from Computer Basics, an introductory course that teaches basic browser and Microsoft Word knowledge, to Social Networking, which assists participants in creating their own Facebook pages and learning how to connect on Twitter.

Timothy Graham, a computer lab instructor at the Northeast Regional Branch, said he sees a diverse group of faces in his classes.

“If you’ve never used a computer before and you look at a keyboard, there’s a whole lot of things on there … you look at a computer screen, there’s buttons, gadgets and gizmos all over the place,” Graham said. “The basic’s class just tries to sort all that kind of stuff up.”

Jennifer Chang, the regional librarian at the Northeast Philadelphia Branch of the Free Library, said funding plays a major role in how the library can cater to patrons.

Graham said class participants are often interested in learning how to craft resumés and apply for jobs.

“People who don’t have access to a computer or to information want to be able to walk into our facility and use these services for free,” said Chang, who has been working in the Free Library system for more than 20 years. She began her career in the Northeast bran, bouncing around to a few of the other branches before returning to Northeast Regional.

“They can come to us, and they can count on us, and that’s largely because of the funding provided to us.”

On Oct. 19, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded $760,000 to the Free Library system to create four mobile computer outposts, each of which will consist of six laptops, one printer, broadband access and Free Library reference tools. The grant will also allow the library to prepare more “flexible models of service delivery” access in the future by sending library services into communities where residents may be unable to visit Free Library branches like Northeast Regional.

“We do realize the city budget can only give so much,” said Jennifer Chang, the regional librarian at the Northeast Regional Branch. “But given the fact that there’s not as many staff [members] as we need for this building and for our activities here, that additional support from [the city] is what will help us eventually increase programming.”

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