by Sue Ann Rybak
Lovett Memorial Library in Mt. Airy has been selected as one of four libraries that will participate in the first phase of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s 21st Century Libraries Initiative, a pilot program whose goal is to create innovative hubs of learning and expand the libraries presence in the community.
Ben Benford, project director for the 21st Century Libraries Initiative, said the Free Library was looking for innovative ways not only to renovate older neighborhood branches but to create libraries that were digital community centers.
The FLP selected eight branch libraries to ultimately participate in the initiative: Lillian Marrero, 601 W. Lehigh Ave.; Logan Library, 1333 Wagner Ave.; Lovett Memorial Library, 6945 Germantown Ave.; Tacony, 6742 Torresdale Ave. Welsh Road, 9233 Roosevelt Blvd.; Paschalville, 6942 Woodland Ave.; Charles L. Durham, 34th Street and Haverford Avenue., and South Philadelphia, 1700 South Broad St.
“The idea is to create a design within the library that we could replicate at other branches as funding becomes available,” said Benford, who is chief of of FLP extension division.
The William Penn Foundation awarded a $82,500 grant to the Free Library of Philadelphia in March to “promote innovation” and help develop “prototype branch libraries designed to meet the 21st century needs of contemporary library users,” according to Kerri Lee, special assistant to the interim president at the William Penn Foundation.
Benford said the contingency grant from the William Penn Foundation will provide funding for the first four libraries. He said the FLP will be holding a series of community forums to find out what services the patrons need.
He said the city has also provided the FLP with “a sizable amount” of capital funds that it has to match with private funding.
“One of the reasons we selected Lovett was because of Mt. Airy USA’s plan to renovate and landscape the outside face,” Benford said. “It really is a Mt. Airy USA initiative to connect the two ends of the Avenue, and where Lovett Library and the park are located – it’s a dead zone.”
Benford said the FLP is focusing on building partnerships with other community organizations, and that Lovett is ideal because of its partnerships with Mt. Airy USA, Friends of Lovett Memorial Library and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.
He said programs at the other three libraries – Lillian Marrero, Logan Library and Tacony – will focus on services for family literacy, children and immigrants, and small business development.
About 30 library patrons attended the meeting at Lovett to discuss their vision for the library’s future.
Chestnut Hill resident Ignatius C. Wang, a member of the board of trustees at the FLP, facilitated the meeting. He said Lovett Library is unique because it is owned by the FLP – not by the city government.
Jim Keller, principal at Vitetta architects, presented a slide show of innovative libraries around the world, including the Haverford Library, which he recently designed. Design concepts included teen performance areas, reading cafes, e-device centers, art space, self-check out centers, an outdoor terrace and unique children’s libraries.
Following the presentation, Keller asked attendees a series of questions.
Residents told representatives from the FLP that they wanted the library to be open more hours, have comfortable reading areas, more electrical outlets, designated spaces for tutoring, reading, and workshops, and have more technology – PCs, WiFi, printers, laptops.
Several attendees were angry that the FLP was considering spending what little funds that were available on technology.
Grace Muscarella, of Mt. Airy, said the FLP should focus more on maintaining its local neighborhood libraries and keeping them open seven days a week.
“That is much more important than building anything,” Muscarella said. “There seems to be an abyss between what you people are talking about and what we’re thinking.”
Keller replied that there are sources of funding available for capital projects that can not be used for anything else. He explained that this meeting was just a preliminary meeting to listen to clients’ concerns and ideas about how to enhance the library.
“I can tell you this much without jumping too far ahead that it is certainly the intention of all of us who have been part of this task force,.to make sure Philadelphia – particularly the Free Library of Philadelphia – is poised to obtain whatever funding there might be such as capital improvements,” he said. “What our hope is for this meeting is to really hear your bigger ideas, and, again, it’s not ignoring the nitty-gritty because it doesn’t make sense to buy a new sofa in your house when there is a hole in the roof. Our hope is to secure funds that would otherwise go someplace else.
Keller asked how residents would like to feel when they come to the library.
One elderly resident shouted “Warm.”
One teenager replied that she would like to feel more welcome.
Another resident said she wished the entrance was more inviting.
“It feels like the box we put library books in when the library is not open,” she said.
David Moore, president of the Friends of the Lovett Memorial Library, suggested placing Sylvia Shaw Judson’s sculpture, “Boy Reading,” which currently resides in the meeting room becuse of congestion in a more prominent location. He added that one of his favorite views is standing on the second floor and looking out the library’s floor to ceiling windows.
Several people said that they would like to see the library expanded.
When asked “What is the one thing you hate about this library,” a patron responded that it was noisy and cluttered.
She said it was impossible to walk downstairs without running into something because its so crammed with tables, chairs and shelving.
The most frequent complaint, however, was that the library was often closed, and when it is open patrons find it difficult to access computers or other technology.
Preserving the library’s character
Almost all those in attendance agreed that it was important to maintain the character of Lovett Library.
Residents said they would like to see more of a “blending” between the historic building and the contemporary building.
Dan Gordon, of Mt. Airy, commented on the the library’s original building, which now serves as a meeting room. The building was donated and built by Charlotte Lovett Bostwick in 1887, as a memorial to her brother, Thomas R. Lovett. In 1961, a new addition was built. The library was last renovated in 1999 as part of the FLP’s “Changing Lives” campaign. In 2004, the Lovett Memorial Reading Garden was dedicated.
“We need to restore its character,” Gordon said.
Several residents agreed, saying the room felt “sterile” and “bland.”
Moore suggested placing historic photographs on the wall throughout the library so children could learn about the area’s rich history.
Gordon added that the entrance should be cheerful and welcoming.
“The entrance right now feels like you’re going down into a subway,” Gordon said.
Molly Robinson, 75, of Mt. Airy, said it was important to preserve the library’s stone or Wissahickon schist.
Robinson, who has been a patron of Lovett Library for more than 55 years, said she hoped the building would maintain its “legacy,” referring to its historic architecture and role in the community.
“Local libraries help to create a sense of stability within society,” Gordon added.
He said that Lovett Memorial Library has a long history of playing a vital role in the cultural, educational and democratic well-being of the community.
The need for more funding
Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said that in 2008, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s budget “was cut by 20 percent or approximately $7.5 million and since then there has been no restoration of funds.”
Dougherty said that despite these cuts the FLP was able to keep all branches open five days a week. She said Mayor Nutter recently proposed to restore $1 million to the library’s budget. She said the additional funding would allow 12 neighborhood libraries to be open six days a week. The problem, she added, is how do you decide what libraries can be opened six days a week?
Councilwoman Cindy Bass commented on the need for accessible and high-quality libraries.
“I am a life-long lover of books and libraries, and now that I have a four-year-old daughter there’s nothing I love more than to bring her to our local public libraries,” Bass said.
She said growing up in North Philadelphia, she found the library to be “an oasis” that broadened her horizons and helped her learn and grow. She said it was important to encourage people to utilize the city’s public libraries because reading and access to technology was “critical” to help students “develop thinking skills” and compete in a global economy.
Dougherty said about 50 percent of Philadelphians don’t have home computers, and pointed out that not having access to a computer makes looking for a job or completing homework assignments difficult – if not impossible.
“Many kids in Kensington and North Philadelphia don’t have books or computers at home,” Dougherty said. “And many don’t have computers at school, so they come to the library to apply for a job online or research information. That’s why we need to get the libraries funded properly.”