At Strawberry Mansion’s Widener library branch, the new shelves and high ceilings bounce back the sounds of a pink ukulele. At its source sits librarian Abbe Klebanoff, strumming tunes during Widener’s less busy hours.
“When I started going to the libraries, I said I really want to do this for a living, so I went back to library school, and I was at several other libraries outside of the [Philadelphia] Free Library system,” said Klebanoff. “When I finally got back in [to Philadelphia … I] was very, very, happy,”
Due to a broken heater at the McPherson Square library, which serves Kensington, Klebanoff is one of many staff members to be relocated to other branches. Sterling Davis Sr., the municipal guard at the McPherson library, followed Klebanoff to the Widener branch.
“My job is to make sure all the patrons are safe – make sure no one steals materials, make sure no one says anything wrong to the kids,” said Davis.
He described the newer-looking Widener as “pretty cool – it’s bright, it has enough lighting.”
“It makes people feel warm and welcome,” Davis said. “Most of the libraries are kind of dark and dim [because] they’re basically older Carnegie buildings. This one is real vibrant, makes people feel real comfortable.”
In an area like Strawberry Mansion, where abandoned buildings, high crime rates and low income are unfortunate realities, the comfortable environment provided by Widener is a welcome change.
With recent budget cuts and school closings in the Strawberry Mansion area, the library has taken on a new role in the neighborhood, offering a variety of programs and computer services.
“I’ve been in libraries for a long time, and the library wants to be known as a third place, not just a repository of books,” Klebanoff said. “Not just where you check out DVDs, but where you can get all types of information on any type of subject or any type of program.”
With some programs reaching between 20 and 50 kids, it’s clear that Widener is filling some educational gaps for students.
“The major thing that I do is try to make sure that all the children, the TLAs (teacher learning assistant) who work with me, are getting the best that they can get out of school,” said Kathy Murray, the after-school leader at Widener.
“I mentor teenagers who actually work with me as part of a team to help children with homework,” Murray said. “We do homework help, but also we do programs for the children for enrichment of things that they’re learning in school, to help them be better students.”
Working alongside Murray, graduate film student Kenneth Guglielmino set up camera equipment for the Maker Jawn Initiative, teaching students skills they won’t get in the classroom.
“We’re about to set up a green screen and everything, [so] here we are focusing on that film, and trying to follow through with all of the processes that go into filmmaking,” he said. “So that’s writing, setting up green screen, acting, learning how to edit. We guide our participants, kids and teens, through a bunch of processes.”
According to its website, Maker Jawn has six locations at six different libraries, offering activities ranging from mural projects to magnetic mazes.
“We try to do interest driven projects, and the interest come from the kids who are actually at the library branch,” said Guglielmino. “At this library branch, we’re working on a film. … Some library branches, they do a lot of crafts, so they might do like, sewing kits, they might be drawing or painting, or music-making.”
The programs do more than fill educational gaps. According to Temple University student Ashley Woods, currently on work-study at the library, neighborhood kids have come to know the library as a social hangout.
“It’s cool … It’s a really small branch. It’s a neighborhood library so the same kids come out,” Woods said. “I don’t necessarily work with them, but if they need help they’ll come to me.”
With all the educational programs offered to help kids, Klebanoff enthusiastically paints a picture of a community library that offers much more.
“I know that the library’s always been a safe place for a lot of kids who are either latchkey kids, or have issues at home and they come to the library because it’s a really safe environment,” she said.
– Text, images and video by Evan Little and Robert Kennedy