In 2009 the Charles L. Durham Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library was on the brink of being closed after 30 years of servicing the community. Part of a $108 million budget cut by Mayor Michael Nutter, the library was one of 11 that was slated to be closed forever. But communities raised their voices, and let their outrage be known. In the end all 11 libraries were saved.
“One of the local schools[Montessori Genesis II Elementary] always talks about how they paraded around the neighborhood and walked to Central [library],” said Allyson Bower, Children’s Librarian.
It isn’t a big library, in fact it is dwarfed by the Mantua Recreation Center with which it shares a building. Its small size hasn’t stopped the library, located at the corner of Haverford Avenue and 34th Street, from being an integral part of the community.
“When they built this it was a blessing, the only problem was [former Mayor] Frank Rizzo done built it too small,” library patron Raymond Grady Sr. said. “He wanted to do two things at one time; build a big gym and a little library.”
The Charles L. Durham Branch is especially important because of the community that it serves. In a lower income area such as Mantua, families may not be able to afford the books and homework assistance that the library provides.
“Classes visit us regularly, a couple times a week,” said Peter Lehu, Branch Manager. “There are certain families that use us extensively to provide homework help and just a place for their children to go.”
Not long ago, a library was the only access most Americans had to internet access. Today a large majority of Americans have access to not just internet at home, but high speed internet. In lower income areas such as Mantua, this is not the case. According to figures released by the Commerce Department last November, among households making less than $25,000 per year, 43 percent had home access to broadband.
With much of daily life going paperless and moving to the internet, the library remains especially important to the Mantua community. It is perhaps more important than it has ever been.
“You need a computer to get by; to apply for jobs, even service level jobs,” said Lehu. “To do anything; to pay your taxes, to file a complaint with a city agency.”
When the library was constructed, the nearest library was at 40th and Walnut Street. Not only was this a relatively long walk, but it cut through some of the roughest areas of Philadelphia. This proved even more valuable as the city’s crack epidemic began not long after construction of the library in 1979.
“You had to go through gang areas to get to the library,” said Grady.
Grady has been a patron of the library since the day it opened its doors in 1979, and credits the library for broadening his horizons.
“If I don’t get the dictionary and look up the word for the day, I get books on African American history,” said Grady. “I’m learning more now in my 67th year than I ever learned when I was in school.”
Government programs aiming to increase internet access to lower income house holds have been launched in recent years. Broadband access is now being offered to families who qualify for free school lunches for $9.95, a price that is far more accessible than the average broadband monthly fee.
There may come a time when nearly every home has access to the internet at home, and with it the bountiful resources the library provides. The Free Library of Philadelphia provides a wealth of downloadable music, books, and movies on its website for its member’s use. However in 2012, the library remains a popular destination children and adults alike.
“It’s well attended I think, even though we have a lower circulation than the other branches,” said Bower.
With budget cuts still being discussed in the city, and ubiquitous internet access looming as a possibility for the near future, there is a strong chance that cuts will target the library once again. However, the library isn’t just a place to find information. It is a social spot, and a safe place for area children.
“The kids, what are they gonna do?” asked Grady.
The internet also can’t replace the cultural activities that the library provides in spite of its decreased budget. That personal and hands on interactive experience is stronger than anything viewed through a screen.
“With the little funding we have we do have programs,” said Lehu. “We invite entertainers in and educators.”
Science fiction writers predicted that computers would replace everything by now. However, it turns out that personal human connections and actually holding a physical book still means a lot to Philadelphia. The public library is an ancient tradition, dating back centuries. Neither modern technology or government money problems seem to be stopping that any time soon.