Fairhill: New Chapter For Library Means Bittersweet, Temporary Closure

A portrait of Lillian Marrero, librarian and namesake.

Rebekah Ray and the staff at the Lillian Marrero Library have been dedicated to the future of the branch, long before the building recently closed for renovations. Now, they are left wondering how the community is going to fare for the next two years, without the essential resources they provide.

The Lillian Marrero Library at Sixth Street and Lehigh Avenue, named after a librarian and community member, is among five branches in the city that are part of the Free Library of Philadelphia‘s 21st Century Libraries Initiative. The branches include Logan, Lovett Memorial in Mt. Airy, South Philadelphia and Tacony in the lower Northeast.

According to the 21st Century Libraries Initiative website, the branches have been chosen based on staff experience and input, Census data and the results of a market segmentation study. With these renovations, the initiative hopes to meet the specific needs of the community and bring the libraries into the future.

For Ray, the library manager and supervisor, the reason they were chosen is more straightforward: decrepitude. The building has been open for 110 years; with its original shelving and chandeliers, it hasn’t been renovated since the 1960s.

“These libraries are falling apart. They are in very poor condition and it takes money we don’t have to maintain them,” Ray said. “Our building runs on two boilers and one shut down the second day of spring. So we’ve been working in here, packing up, without heat for awhile now.”

Although the city has plans to propose legislation that will push capital funds into the library system, for now the renovations are being financed by donations and grants. The new renovations at the Fairhill branch will include a community theater, a children’s library, a living room, a teen space and a pre-K zone.

The William Penn Foundation, a grant-making foundation established in 1945 in Philadelphia by businessman Otto Haas and his wife Phoebe, has given $25 million for four branches, while the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia provided all of the funding for the new South Philly facility. This takes care of most, but not all expenses for the buildings. The rest will come from private donations collected by the independent Free Library Foundation and some federal money.

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In 2015, overall operating costs for the library totaled more than $48 million. This budget covers staffing and maintaining the libraries, as well as providing the reading materials.

“Running these libraries is labor intensive,” Ray said. “We are always short-staffed and we are open six days a week. We have one full-time librarian assistant, when technically we should be staffed with two.”

The staff includes two librarians, one full-time librarian assistant, a municipal security guard and digital resource manager. Work-study programs filled by Temple students also help keep the libraries functioning as well.

Rachel Solomon, child librarian specialist, working to log the rest of the books.
Rachel Solomon, child librarian specialist, works to log the rest of the books.

“People depend on us for so much around here. It’s a challenge to give people what they want,” Ray added. “They expect more, and the resources are fewer.”

Despite this lack of resources, the library provides as many programs for the surrounding areas as it can. According to 21stCenturyLibraries.org, the library presented 504 total programs for children, adults and teens last year, serving nearly 3,500 participants. It hosts cultural and after-school programs, offers homework help, provides a safe space for social interaction and, most importantly, gives access to the digital world.

“We have the busiest internet lab in the city. We have 16 computers and wi-fi,” Ray said. “There is only 35 percent internet penetration in this area, and some people come in here without even having an e-mail.”

With the internet as essential as it is these days, people rely on the branch for technical assistance, job applications and business development. In 2010, Fels Research and Reporting found that at the library’s Central Branch workplace center, 70 percent of users were unemployed adults and 30 percent were students seeking work opportunities. They also found that 979 Philadelphians found jobs directly as a result of the resources provided by the libraries.

With the branch expected to be closed through Oct. 17, 2017, the staff worries about what could happen in its absence. They can work at other branches in the meantime, but the patrons will need to adjust. Although there are other locations in the area such as the McPherson and Kensington branches, and a mobile computer unit that will be available at certain times, the staff knows it’s hard to make the transition.

“It’s a way of life in these libraries, so our people may not be comfortable going to another branch. It hurts because it’s like a home for these people,” said Kevin Cheely, the branch security guard. “It’s especially hard for the kids. They come in here for books, school help, and now we have to say, ‘Sorry, we have nowhere for you to go.’”

Cheely has been working at Lillian Marrero for five years, and although he can see the light at the end of the tunnel, he’s sad to lose that constant connection with the area kids and everyday patrons.

“It’s tough to wait almost two years, because who knows where some of these kids will be with the way it is around here sometimes,” Cheely said. “These kids are my friends.”

Despite his feelings about the shutdown, Cheely is excited to have something like this in the Fairhill area.

“I look forward to this being a bright spot. It gives the neighborhood a different look, something better than broken down buildings,” Cheely said. “It will be crazy to drive by after all these years and see this.”

Rendering of the library’s interior renovation. Photo courtesy of 21stcenturylibraries.org

– Text, images and video by James Kirn

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