With recent school closures throughout North Philadelphia, some librarians feared the possibility that public libraries could once again fall victim to budget slashing by the city government.
When Mayor Michael Nutter shut down 11 free library branches in 2008, the threat of mass library closures alarmed communities until October 2009, when the Pennsylvania State Senate passed a bill that reversed the mayor’s decision to implement the infamous “Plan C” budget proposal.
Although the surviving free libraries were allocated the same amount of money, their nonprofit fundraisers, which are organized under the Friends of the Free Library umbrella group, ultimately determined funding for many programs and services per branch. As a result, lower-income communities have been operating on a significantly smaller budget.
“Every year the funding gets cut,” said Aimee Thrasher-Hanson, the library supervisor at Fairhill’s Lillian Marrero branch located at Sixth Street and Lehigh Avenue. “When people retire, the positions can never be re-filled,” Thrasher-Hanson said, “and you can only rely on volunteers so much and on work study so much.”
Since the budget crisis in 2008, the Marrero branch has lost half its staff from layoffs. The cuts were even applied to the hours of operation, which led the branch to coordinate its schedule with the Ramonita de Rodriguez branch, located on Sixth Street and Girard Avenue, in efforts to continue six days of library services rather than five.
In order to continue programs for kids and adults, Thrasher-Hanson found professionals and volunteers willing to teach various life skills for free so the branch could maximize its $400 program budget. In fact, Thrasher-Hanson volunteered to run a crochet club at her own branch.
Thrasher-Hanson is one of two “adult librarians” who determined the collection development based on the needs of the neighborhood and organized different programs, many of which were suggested by library cardholders. Although the branch required more funding to employ a “child librarian,” she managed to create a kid-friendly atmosphere with access to educational computer games, homework tutors and bi-weekly chess team practices.
“It’s very quiet during the day, with people studying, but in the evenings … I let it get loud,” Thrasher-Hanson said, adding that she hoped creating a fun and relaxing environment would keep a high influx of kids after school and perhaps make it possible for funding to follow.