by Stan Cutler

Cindy Bass, our representative on City Council, does not think the Free Library of Philadelphia is adequately funded. Every year, in early June, Council passes a budget for the fiscal year to begin on July 1. For FY 2020, Council amended the Mayor’s proposed FLP budget upward by $3.5 million, from $42.5 million to $46 million. Councilwoman Bass thinks that Council’s amendment should have been at least $20 million higher.

Librarians are educated specialists whose role in the community is undervalued. They not only manage media collections, they develop programs and interact with the public. Because libraries are safe, community spaces, they are like magnets for our most vulnerable members. Librarians provide a service of incalculable value; they treat every individual with dignity and respect. That matters a great deal to children, to the elderly and to the troubled.

Public service institutions seem to devolve away from dignity and respect. When they are underfunded, when talented people cannot earn a decent living performing public service, they find jobs elsewhere. Soon, there are staff shortages. As a consequence, the civility of those who remain is challenged by the sheer number of citizens they are meant to serve. So it goes: The public service death spiral.

Teacher shortages and librarian shortages are the norm in our poorer municipalities. Politicians are faced with difficult choices. Should they allocate more to policemen and prison guards than to librarians and teachers? The “broken windows” philosophy demands more police in order to deal with petty crimes like pilfering and vandalism. The issue is civility and overall community health. The theory is that if you have more police, the demeanor of the community as a whole becomes more civil and citizens are more likely to treat each other well.

Broken libraries are like broken windows, but the impact is more difficult to measure than crime statistics. The FLP has been eager to develop metrics to persuade politicians that they are improving, that they are spending on staff recruiting and that they count the number of daily patrons served and the number of books borrowed. But what metric can you apply that measures a public library system’s intangible value? How do you measure dignity, respect and intellectual vitality? How do you convince bean counters that the safety, educational opportunity and decorum available to everyone at a library is essential to civilized society?

It comes down to values, as always. Councilwoman Bass, to her credit, is convinced that achieving the FLP’s mission is worth significant investment.

On June 6, Bass told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “You can’t keep talking about education without talking about the libraries and literacy. The libraries have to be more of a priority, and they have to meet the needs of the communities that they serve.”

Let us, therefore, praise City Council for listening to the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Special thanks to our regional Friends advocate, Sarah Giskin, who worked hard to put our case before the legislators. Our members rallied in the corridors of City Hall and managed to get a small increase in funding for our 54 branch libraries. Of the additional $3.5 million, roughly $1 million is designated for raises, $500,000 for maintenance/repair and $2 million to pay staff for six-day service during the school year. Mayor Kenney has agreed to raise the baseline request by approximately $3.5 million in the next four budget proposals.

But it’s not nearly enough. The libraries must be upgraded with 21st-century facilities, programs exploiting new media must be introduced and salaries must be raised to keep and attract talented professionals.

Now I’d like to bang another drum. The Friends of Chestnut Hill Library’s Program Committee will select speakers for our Fall series during the last week of July. If you believe that we can learn from you, please submit your proposal for a presentation on the page of CHLibraryFriends.org. The hour to hour-and-a-half presentations will be scheduled for Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m. at 8711 Germantown Ave. I hope to see you there, one way or another.

...