Reasons to Advocate for Free Public Libraries

By stancutler,

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The following appeared as five separate articles in the Chestnut Hill Local in November and December, 2018.

#1 Why I Joined Up

     Our library is a beautiful, iconic place on the 8700 hundred block of the avenue. I was there last week when a whole bunch of second-graders from Jenks School walked in through the front door. They were quiet, as if in church, marching in single file, wide-eyed and well-behaved, around the checkout desk, through the collection, past the computer workstations, to the Community Room way in the back, where Cynthia and Alyssa Kreilick would read aloud from their illustrated book.
Some neighbors had persuaded me to go to an evening meeting of Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library. The morning the kids showed up, a few days later, I was wondering whether I was wasting my time. I was at the library for a follow-up chat with folks who want to persuade the Mural Arts Society to decorate a wall. And then the kids came in and reminded me. If the library fails, our American community loses a vital organ. Preserving the library, honoring its purpose, making it better as America evolves, are efforts worthy of my time and yours.
I felt a joy as the children filed by, all clean and tidy and serious-faced, so beautiful, our future. At the library, we are on our very, very best behavior. To be in such a wonderful place is our right. And it is a privilege that we honor lest we be un-welcome there. I needed to be reminded.
I lead a seminar group focused on media and politics. We discuss how the ways we communicate influence how we vote, the news we seek, and the state of our culture. A historian in the room told us a surprising fact about literacy in America; we were once the most literate country on the planet. Common Sense, read by half the American colonial population, summarized in the Declaration of Independence, was a hot spark of the Revolution. Uncle Tom’s Cabin energized caring Americans and legitimized the Civil War for universal freedom. Our Presidents were enlightened men who regarded love of knowledge as proof of character. We are Americans because we can read. America is America because of the written word.
The tides of technology and economics are relentless. Our public schools, community newspapers, and public libraries anchor us to our finest heritage. In the 21st Century, libraries, public schools and newspapers are threatened as never before. We have a duty to do whatever we can to empower the institutions of literacy, to stand for them against the tides.
Another idea I heard at the meeting was to place a regular column of library news in the Chestnut Hill Local. As you can see, the editors and publisher have agreed. This is the first installment. We will keep you posted about what folks like us are doing.
The title of Cynthia and Alyssa Kreilick’s book is “Lucha And Lola”. As the kids filed quietly out to return to Jenks, I could tell that they’d had a great lesson. (By the way, of 220 Philadelphia public schools, only 8 have Librarians. Jenks is not one of them.)

#2 The Most Valuable Real Estate in Chestnut Hill

    Not For Sale: Top of the hill property on the 8700 block of Germantown Avenue.      It’s a single-floor building with twenty-foot ceilings and more than three-thousand square feet of hardwood floor. The interior has beautiful natural light from enormous mullioned windows. The place was built in 1909 and has been regularly upgraded and carefully maintained. What’s it worth?
The property comes with a few extras. A 1980s addition, paid for with donations from the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, features a spacious community room that is unused most of the time. We, the folks who live in Chestnut Hill, could use it as a forum. We could take and offer courses on fascinating subjects. It would be a non-political, non-commercial space where we could be at our best. How much is a place like that worth?
Smart phone technologies, portable internet in our pockets, have been infused into our society as profoundly as books. The free public library was once used like the internet is used in the 21st Century. The library didn’t do some things nearly as well as the internet. The internet retrieves stuff so much faster, forcing us to absorb information far more rapidly and in smaller chunks. Haste makes waste. The library’s operating system, its infrastructure, functions differently. In so doing it adds value to mindful experiences. What’s that kind of infrastructure worth?
You cannot put a price on the library because it is far more than real estate. Its enormous value is not mercenary, cannot be privatized. Privatization is the scourge of public service and good government. Schools, hospitals, clinics – all offloaded to the faster-better-cheaper crowd. I abhor the privatization of schools. I worry about the libraries. The City Government, budget after budget, feels pressure to cut the funding. We understand. But…
We, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, are advocates for the Free Library system founded by Benjamin Franklin. We will also be heard. We argue for more funding. We argue for improvements. We argue on behalf of our American heritage. You can join us at


#3 Our Assets

     Let’s focus on two exceptional Chestnut Hill assets: 1) the people of our community and 2) the branch library on Germantown Avenue. We achieve a beneficial synergy that enhances the value of both when the two are merged. How do we do this?

     What makes us exceptional? Are we not the same as every other citizen of Philadelphia? Yes. Like everyone else, we care about our families, work hard, root for our teams. Like everyone else, we pay the bills, manage our emotions, deal with health problems, worry about crime and decadence and selfish politicians. In the most important sense, our humanity, we are exactly like everyone else. But we are, in general, better educated than folks in most communities.

Chestnut Hill

Education Statistics

Philadelphia County

Education Statistics

No High School 119 2% No High School 64,476 10%
Some High School 134 2% Some High School 143,490 22%
Some College 813 13% Some College 163,090 25%
Associate Degree 398 6% Associate Degree 54,134 8%
Bachelor’s degree 2,227 35% Bachelor’s degree 129,832 20%
Graduate Degree 2,672 42% Graduate Degree 93,129 14%
num household adults sampled 6,363 num household adults sampled 648,151


     The largest cohort of adults in Chestnut Hill are people with graduate degrees. So what?

     Many of us have time on our hands. Some are retired. Some work part of the time. We are a community of talented, experienced, well-educated people. We, the Chestnut Hill Library Friends, believe these assets can be put to good use. We are talking to you.

     Are you an educator, either active or retired, who wants to give a lecture on the most important things you know? Are you a creative professional, a writer or artist, who wants to share your work? Are you a business professional who has learned secrets of success that you think everyone ought to know? Are you an expert on a fascinating topic? Are you none of these but have ideas worth sharing? Package your ideas (i.e., presentation, lecture, demo, talk) and deliver it at the library at 1:30 PM on a Tuesday afternoon.

     We, the Chestnut Hill Library Friends, will be hosting a regular program in which local folks deliver their best ideas to their neighbors. We are looking for people to fill our schedule. This is a call for proposals. Send your idea to

#4 We, the Users

     Those of us who grew up in Philadelphia used the Free Library System a lot. Before there were so many media clamoring for attention, we had a robust media infrastructure that was integral to our community. But it was communal – not commercial. It was free, it was ours, and it did an amazing job. The Library was like our internet, where we physically (not virtually) went for entertainment and enlightenment, a place to and from which we walked with pounds of books. We were hooked on the library – in no small measure because we had to keep going back to return the books. What a gimmick. We live in a different Age.

The mission of the Free Library of Philadelphia is to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.”

     Here’s a bit of irony, I downloaded the FLP’s mission statement (above) while in my snug office on Highland Avenue. It took me thirty seconds to put “FLP Philadelphia mission” as a Google search and copy it from the FLP home page. Ta-daah! Back in the day, I would have had to walk to the library and look it up.

     Please notice that the word ‘book’ does not appear in the statement. We keep the books because they are a terrific medium of communication, superior to electronic media in many ways. But there are other ways the FLP’s resources can be used “to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.”

     Let’s be loud and energetic advocates for the Free Library of Philadelphia in general and for our Chestnut Hill branch in particular. Let’s do so because we love books and because we are advocates for learning, literacy, curiosity, and because we want to live in a community devoted to lifelong learning.

     When you think of the great building on the 8700 block of the avenue, understand that it is not just a valuable book collection. Much more should happen there if it is to fulfill its purpose. We will use this column to put forward your ideas (and mine) about how we can energize the library, rejuvenate it as a public media center with a communal, enlightened mission.

     What does that mean? What’s a public media center? How does it work? Our library is unusual because it has a spacious community room that is unused most of the time. Should it be an adult education center? Should it send as well as receive? Can it be used to learn technology? Is it a podcast site? Is it a classroom or a lecture hall? Is it all of these or none of these? I think it’s up to us to decide. That’s, in part, what these essays are about. The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library welcome your ideas at

#5 Turn the Lights Up

      It is hard to persuade City Council and the Mayor’s Office to adequately fund the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Because of staff shortages, our local branch is not open on Saturdays and opens late on weekdays. Our organization, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, works alongside other Friends groups citywide as advocates for more resources, but it’s an uphill battle. If we, with your help, are to succeed, we need to prove the FLP’s relevance and contributions to the community. Do libraries matter? Should we invest in them?
Here are a couple of sample line items from The Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget of $4.69 billion. ( )

• Free Library: $41 Million (.87%, less than nine-tenths of a cent for every       dollar)
• Fire Department: $259 million (5.5%)
• Office of Innovation and Technology: $66 million (1.4%, 5% more than             the FLP, which must invest in technology innovation of its own to satisfy           21st  Century requirements)
• Parks and Recreation: $69 million (1.5%)
• Police: $709 million (15.1%)
• Prisons: $256 million (5.5%)
• School District: $ 176 million (3.8%)

      Only 9 of our 122 public schools have a librarian, so the FLP contributes scarce resources to augment the Public School System’s woefully underfunded allocation. We have to remind City Hall of its obligation to the children – to the future.

      Societies evolve around media, whether rock paintings, books, or digitized content. The ways we communicate define us. I worry about a society of people who fixate on personal media, who prefer virtual interactions to real ones. Media technologies, in our commercialized society, encourage communities of strangers. Churches, mosques and synagogues fill the void for some of us. But the religious meeting places, like the public places, are also shrinking in the Cyber Age. My “church” is the library. I want it to flourish, not wither. I want to invest more in the FLP, not less.

      Our public institutions rely on taxes and the enlightened allocation of money by elected officials. It’s as if politicians are like businessmen who believe that the only way to measure value is the bottom line. By definition, free libraries are an expense that returns intangible value.

      What’s happening to the FLP is symptomatic of profound cultural change, a powerful tide of personalization enabled by profit-driven media industries. The media ecology that terminates on a flat screen is occupied by each of us – alone. If we have a question, we ask an artificial intelligence like Siri or Google or Watson. Using our cyber media devices, we buy and sell stuff. We stay electronically connected with our personally-selected circle, “friending” and “unfriending” our virtual communities, “following” or “un-following” Tweeters, only incidentally connected to our neighbors. We, Friends of The Library, resist devotion to the personal at the expense of the communal, to the pursuit of individual benefit at the expense of commonwealth. We pay taxes for a reason.

      Free public libraries are essential elements of enlightened communities. The lights are going out. If we are to save public libraries, we have to fight. Convincing politicians of the Free Library’s value, because many of its rewards are intangible, requires us to be outspoken champions for the common good. Join us at

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