by Sue Ann Rybak

More than 25 residents gathered at Lovett Memorial Library in Mt. Airy on April 20 to find out when the library will close and what services will be available to users while the branch is closed for two years for renovations.

Unfortunately, many left without any concrete answers.

Earlier this year, the Free Library of Philadelphia announced that Lovett was selected as one of five libraries that would participate in the FLP’s “Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative,” a pilot program whose goal is to create innovative hubs of learning and expand the libraries’ presence in the community.

The project is being funded through a $25 million grant from the William Penn Foundation and includes the renovation and expansion of the Parkway’s Central Library and four neighborhood branches: Lillian Marrero Library, 601 West Lehigh Ave.; Logan Library, 1333 Wagner Ave.; Tacony Library, 6742 Torresdale Ave., and South Philadelphia Library, 1700 South Broad St.

Today’s libraries do more than just provide information. For more than 100 hundred years, Lovett Memorial Library has played a vital role in the community. More than just a place to store books, it has become over the years a gathering place where patrons come to learn how to knit, search the Internet, apply for a job online or watch a movie or performance while dining under the stars.

David T. Moore, president of the Friends of Lovett Library, said his group held the meeting to find out what services patrons thought were vital to the community and how those needs might be addressed.

Several residents expressed their disappointment that representatives from the Free Library of Philadelphia or Mt. Airy USA were not in attendance.

The most important activities people said they use the library for were checking out and picking up books, having access to free WiFi and computers, and using the facility as a gathering place for meetings, clubs and other social functions.

Moore said he looked into having a “pop-up” library in a vacant storefront, but he noted that the cost of renting a space, even temporarily, was too expensive for the Friends group.

One resident asked if neighborhood libraries in the area would be extending their hours to meet the needs of the community while Lovett was closed.

Veronica Britto, branch manager of Lovett, said no, but told residents that the Free Library is working to address the needs of all the communities that will be affected by the project’s renovations.

“The plans aren’t specific yet because they are closing all the renovated libraries at the same time,” she said, “so all of these neighborhood branches are being faced with the same concerns. Looking for a solution is definitely something that is being discussed, but the solution itself has yet to be revealed.”

Selma Williams, of West Mt. Airy, suggested the use of modular trailers so residents could continue to have access to basic services in their immediate neighborhood.

She said when the William Jeanes Memorial Library in Lafayette Hill was recently renovated, officials rented mobile trailers so people could pick-up reserved books, use computers, have access to free WiFi, and other community-oriented services.

“They never lost any momentum,” Williams said.

She said having a temporary library would help to minimize service interruption in Mt. Airy during construction, which is estimated to take almost two years.

Mt. Airy resident Rodi Steinig, stressed the importance of having services in Mt. Airy.

“I have children who are heavy library users,” she said. “They are children, so they can’t drive to Mt. Pleasant Playground or Chestnut Hill Library. It would be great if they had a place somewhere in downtown Mt. Airy where they could pick-up or return books or, for my older daughter, to sit down at a computer for two hours and do her homework.”

Moore told residents that despite several attempts to communicate with representatives of the Free Library of Philadelphia, he has yet to receive a response.

“I am distressed by the way this whole process has worked,” said Moore, who is disappointed that the Library has not discussed a plan for temporary services while the building is being renovated.

“I am utterly and completely and totally frustrated.”

Mara Natkins, of Mt. Airy, suggested that residents and the Friends of Lovett Memorial Library reach out to other nonprofit organizations and community groups such as East Mt. Airy Neighbors and West Mt. Airy Neighbors to help organize and rally support for temporary library services.

“It’s a better way to get representation and effectively disseminate information to the community,” she said.

Natkins said having a temporary location for the neighborhood library would have community-wide benefits.

“We need to keep up the momentum that’s already been created by the Lovett Memorial Library,” she said. “We need to continue to cultivate the next generation of library users.”

Ann Silverman, of Germantown, agreed.

She said it was important that the community come together to voice its concerns to the Free Library of Philadelphia. Silverman added that simply going to another library doesn’t address the needs of the patrons at Lovett.

Moore said the Friends of Lovett Memorial Library hopes to meet with various community organizations and the Free Library of Philadelphia to minimize the impact of the library’s closure on the community.

“I am extremely impressed by this turnout,” he said. “The number of neighbors here and the presence of Newsworks and the Chestnut Hill Local demonstrate that the community cares about the library.”

Moore said he would invite the Free Library of Philadelphia to Friends’ next meeting in hopes of finally getting some answers.

Jennifer Donsky, communications coordinator for neighborhood libraries at the Free Library of Philadelphia, confirmed that representatives from the Free Library of Philadelphia would be at the next Friends of Lovett Memorial Library meeting, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 15, at Lovett Memorial Library, 6945 Germantown Ave.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be able to look ahead to the renovations and expansion of services at this treasured Mt. Airy resource,” Donsky wrote in an email. “As with any project this ambitious, we know that the community has a number of questions, particularly as it relates to interim library services during construction.

“Currently, the Library is considering a variety of options. As soon as firm decisions have been made and courses charted, we will apprise the community at future meetings, before the closure, related to this transformative initiative taking place right in the neighborhood.”