Monday, December 1, 1997

Library makes for good story

Covering a municipal government is usually an immersion in stories of frustration. So I seized the chance to report good news like this.


The paint was peeling, the roof unreliable, the fluorescent lights too dim. One recent January, the heater conked out for most of the month.

For an awfully long time, the Paschalville branch library in a shot-and-a-beer section of Southwest Philadelphia had the used-up and left-behind look of a city ruin.

But two years ago, the branch underwent a major overhaul. New paint, new lights, new

New customers.

"The community loves the building," said Frank Ferguson, head librarian at the branch for 13 years. He tallied 9,500 people coming through the doors in October - the most he can recall.

"The only thing is we're so busy now, we need more staff," Ferguson said.

All across the enormous Free Library of Philadelphia system, tarnished buildings are being restored and outfitted with up-to-date technology in an unprecedented public-private drive slated to yield $75 million by 2000.

And the public is responding. Last year, the central library and its 52-branch system recorded 4.8 million visitors - 800,000 more than in 1993. Borrowers took out 6.5 million items - a half-million more than in the 1960s, when the city had a half-million more people.

The system is in such a frenzy of renewal that two employees spend the bulk of their time planning grand reopening celebrations.

Working on a fast-track schedule that bypasses some traditional city government processes, 16 branches have been renovated since the campaign was launched two years ago, according to the Free Library.

The Northwest Regional Library is scheduled to reopen this week. The Tacony Branch is to reopen on Sunday. Six more branches, now closed, are to reopen by February. The West Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia Regional Libraries, which are closed, are to reopen next year.

The 26 remaining branches, still awaiting work, are to be overhauled by mid-2000.

Check out these other signs of life: For two years, each library has been open six days a week; as recently as 1991, doors were open that often only at the central and regional libraries. At 36 branches, children can get after-school homework help in organized programs. The Summer Reading Program has soared from 6,500 children in 1990 to 48,000 in 1996.

A public lecture series, called "Rebuilding the Future," has raised the library's intellectual profile by bringing in the likes of Toni Morrison, Garry Trudeau, John Updike, Alice Walker, Norman Mailer, Spike Lee, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Isabelle Allende and Stephen Jay Gould.

"The challenge," says Elliot Shelkrot, 54, the library's president and director, "is to keep pushing the library ahead."

The fund-raising campaign, called Big Change ("because people walk into the renovated buildings and say, 'Wow, what a big change,' " said Stephen Bell, the Free Library's marketing director), is a thunderous turnaround from years of budget-squeezing and neglect.

Before, the Lehigh Avenue branch - perhaps the grandest of the Carnegie-legacy buildings, a towering structure dressed in Ionic columns, its front door perched 23 steps above street level - drooped with plastic sheeting to keep deteriorating plaster from falling onto patrons. "Late London blitz," Linda Fein, the regional administrator, recently described the look.

Today, the Lehigh branch is grand again, with five gleaming brass chandeliers hanging from a stately Renaissance ceiling. Orange-creamsicle-colored walls, striped by white columns, suggest a repose far removed from the harsh realities of the drug- and violence-wracked neighborhood known as the Badlands just three blocks north.

Before, the 41-year-old Kensington branch at Front and Dauphin Streets was fronted by graffiti-streaked sheets of plywood. Duct tape held shattered windows together. "The most egregious eyesore in the city library system," librarian Marian Plotkin called it in 1986.

Last month, the remade Biblioteca Kensington Library reopened with balloons, music and oratory. "This was a rather depressing place to come," said Patricia deCarlo, director of the Norris Square Civic Association. "But now - wow! The colors, the mural, the books, the technology."

PNC Bank Corp. gave $150,000 toward the library's 12 new computers. Two are stocked with software for preschoolers; two others are geared toward higher grades. Other tubes provide free Internet access. "This building now is comparable to what you'd find in Bryn Mawr or Haverford," said J. William Mills 3d, a PNC executive vice president on hand for the opening.

"That's what's important: to make sure all kids have the same opportunities as we move to the 21st century."

In the 1980s, the Free Library system was in such sorry shape that officials seriously considered scaling down its operations and closing branches. But when Shelkrot took over in 1987, he set out on a different course: going after private money, in imitation of fund-raising drives that had revitalized libraries in New York, Boston, Baltimore and other cities.

But Philadelphia - unlike Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York - did not focus its fund-raising on remaking the central building. "We decided that we could really make a difference in the lives of everyday people if we could renovate the branches," Shelkrot said in an interview.

So it is the branch and regional libraries, which attract six times as many visitors as the central library at Logan Square, that are the beneficiaries of the $35 million first phase of the Free Library's private fund-raising effort - a drive that's now just $700,000 shy of its goal at least a half-year ahead of schedule. In phase two, the library hopes to raise $15 million more to set up an endowment for maintaining and upgrading the technological and physical improvements and for freshening up the central library with new wiring and redesigned spaces.

The money from foundations, corporations and everyday citizens is being matched by $25 million in city money over five years - a doubling of the city's capital spending for libraries over the previous five years. Critics who contend that the Rendell administration favors Center City over the neighborhoods come up empty where libraries are concerned.

"The mayor's been outstanding," Shelkrot said.

In years past, city budgets were so shaky, that the library system would be forced to make unexpected cutbacks halfway through the year. "Now, when I'm presenting the budget at the beginning of the year," Shelkrot said, "I know it's going to be the budget for the entire year."

When Rendell became mayor during the dark budget days of 1992, he spared the Free Library from the harsh cuts that befell some other departments. He raised the library's capital budget in 1996 after challenging Shelkrot to set up a volunteer program to expand library hours. Which Shelkrot did: In 1995, library volunteer hours were 51 percent higher than in 1992.

In the private-public pairing that is enabling the overhaul of the 52 branches, city money pays for infrastructure upgrades: roofs, boilers, air conditioning, windows, sidewalks. Corporations, foundations and individuals are paying for paint, lighting, carpeting, furniture, preschool library facilities and computer technology.

Because private donors were reluctant to give money to the slow-moving city bureaucracy, the Rendell administration agreed to an unusual step. It handed the reins of the construction projects to the Free Library Foundation, the entity that oversees the library's privately raised funds. (A committee of city managers keeps watch over the projects' progress.)

"Their results have been pretty impressive," said Kevin Feeley, a Rendell spokesman - impressive enough that administration officials say they are trying to revise their own procedures to match the speedy progress of the library rehabilitation drive.

According to marketing director Bell, branch libraries are closed six to nine months during a renovation. The three regionals are closed nine to 12 months. While that's a flash to bureaucrats, it's torture to devoted patrons.

"There's no good time to close a library," said Councilman Michael Nutter, who often visits the eight branches in his district and who hears from nervous constituents. "It's like when you're caught in a traffic jam due to road construction. You're frustrated. But then, two months later, you're appreciative you're driving on a nice, smooth road."

The mating of private and public interests has hit some rough spots. Two successive city controller's audits faulted the Free Library for mixing activities of the Library Foundation with those of the library per se. At a 1996 budget hearing, City Council members expressed concerns over a growing number of workers paid with privately raised funds to oversee privately funded enrichment programs.

"I think there are people in our workforce who are going to feel very, very threatened," Council President John Street told Shelkrot.

According to Bell, the Library Foundation has 34 full-time employees, 20 year-round part-time workers, and 133 seasonal part-timers. Their activities range from fundraising to helping schoolchildren with their homework - working, that is, on projects that wouldn't exist without private support.

Shelkrot acknowledged that the foundation-paid workers' duties do overlap at times with those of the 680 employees of the Free Library. But it's all for the greater good of the library, he said:

"When I think of the astounding number of things that we have been able to accomplish by augmenting the city workforce. . . ."

"The administration and the board believe so strongly in what a library can do for people that we are bound and determined to do everything we can to provide the highest quality service,"
Shelkrot added. "And if city dollars aren't available, our responsibility is to get that money wherever we can."

To some, the money chase has gone too far. Each branch library has been urged to raise $20,000 over five years, with every $3 raised to be matched by $1 from Pew Charitable Trusts. As a result, librarians routinely sell raffle tickets, water ice and Tootsie Rolls. They've been sent to Friendly's restaurants and Burger King outlets to act as hosts and hostesses on nights when the businesses devote a share of proceeds to the library.

"It's absurd," said Kathy Scott, president of AFSCME Local 2187, the city librarians' union.
After the union filed a grievance last year, library officials made it clear that fund-raising, although encouraged, would not be required of librarians. The union contends, however, that administration policies don't provide enough employee protection. The issue has gone to arbitration.

When the Paschalville Branch closed for renovations, librarians weeded out one-third of the books deemed out of date, too beat up or too little used. Books are commonly pruned at that rate during a renovation, with new books being ordered in the meantime, Bell said. Earlier this year, controversy forced the Free Library to alter its longstanding practice of sending thousands of weeded books to the recycling bins.

"I didn't mind it," branch librarian Ferguson said of the weeding. "It's worse having a book that's out of date than not having one at all."

Paradoxically, more open space on a shelf encourages more readers to take books out, Ferguson said; the collection looks more inviting. "You've got to have nice-looking books on the shelves," he said.

In its reincarnation, the Paschalville branch glows under new $2,000 light fixtures that Ferguson picked out himself. They hang from the 30-foot ceilings. New paint work shows off the original inlay of the 1915 building, erected from the fortune of Andrew Carnegie.

A librarian for 24 years, Ferguson, 51, lives in the community, a hardscrabble corner of the city where nearly one-third of families live below the poverty line. He's watched two or three generations troop through the red-brick library building at 70th Street and Woodland Avenue.
He can look across the street to St. Clement Catholic Church, where he is a lay minister.
The library is more popular than ever, with 42,000 items in circulation last year, compared with
39,000 in 1994.

The computers are in great demand, with adults cruising the Internet and writing resumes; school children doing their homework; and preschoolers playing reading-readiness games. The two librarians, two library assistants and a part-time aide are awash in questions about software, network connections, online services.

"It's nice to work in a good building," Ferguson said, sitting in the branch office near a stack of 53 Vietnamese-language videos - a shiny bounty of new acquisitions - being readied for the shelves. "It makes you feel better about yourself."

No comments:

Post a Comment