Saving Free Public Libraries

By stancutler,

  Filed under: General
  Comments: None

These appeared separately in the Chestnut Hill Local in 2018 & 2019

#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

#6 Chestnut Hill Tradition

Before there was a Witches & Wizards Weekend or a Garden Weekend or an Arts and Crafts Fair on the avenue, there was an event called Caroling at the Créche. 66 years ago, some neighbors found a patch of ground in front of a rundown mansion where no one objected to Christmas statuary, a nativity scene – a créche. The spot was a likely address for a nativity scene – at Bethlehem Pike where it intersects Germantown Avenue. The Wharton family estate sold the property in the mid-fifties and the lot has been zoned for commercial use ever since.  Since the 1990’s, it’s been owned by different banks. Nowadays, it’s a Santander.

Legend has it that those 1952 folks were powerfully motivated by the Germantown Avenue retailers, whose commercialization of Christmas was too crass for their liking. Those were tough times for the merchants because there was no place to park, so people were driving to suburban stores. It was the beginning of the retail crisis that obliterated the great downtown department stores. Chestnut Hill’s merchants responded to the crisis by agreeing to connect their back-alley properties as parking lots.

The original créche builders thought it would be nice to gather there with their friends and neighbors to sing carols on a weekday evening before Christmas. On Monday, December 17th, it happened again, for the 66th time. Sometimes it snows or sleets or blows bitter cold or does all three at once. No matter, there will be a caroling at the créche every year. It’s a thing.

By happy coincidence, the library is only a block away from the intersection, a fine place to retire for hot cider and neighborly camaraderie. If you missed it this year, stop by next year for the 67th iteration. The singing’s pretty good, backed by some talented local musicians. The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library put out a nice spread in the Community Room to reward the singers and listeners alike. The Friends also start their Christmas book sale at the after-party, so you can pick up some great reading material after the songs. (BREAKING NEWS: you don’t have to wait until next year to buy our used books – we do it almost every Monday afternoon, year-round.)

This year, it was a dry, breezy evening with the temperature in the mid-forties. Starting at 7:30, about 75 of your neighbors sang with joy and enthusiasm. It was fun.

The Friends wish to thank the merchants who generously supported the event with their delicious donations. Baker Street Bakery, Barry’s Buns, Bredenbeck’s Bakery, Cake, Cheese Shop (The), Evergreen Cheese, Fresh Market, McNally’s, Roller’s Restaurants, Santander (musician space), Tavern on the Hill, The Night Kitchen, Top of the Hill, Weaver’s Way, and Zipf’s Candy. And special thanks to Friend of The Library volunteer Marlene Sider for coordinating the whole affair.




Some of us enjoy the seasonal changes that drive others to warmer climes during the winter months. Sure, we gripe about shoveling snow and icy roads, but it’s all part of the rhythm of life in our part of the world. This winter, we can look forward to something a little different, a program to brighten the intellectual life of our community. The Friends of the Library are offering adult programming in the community room of our FLP branch at 8711 Germantown Avenue. These (free) presentations are the first offerings, the initial steps toward the establishment of a robust, year-round adult learning center at the top of the hill. Join us.

Philadelphia’s Great Trees (Wednesday, January 16  at 6:00 PM) Arborist and author Ned Barnard presents highlights from his new field guide to our urban woodland, published in partnership with the Morris Arboretum.   Ned, a resident of Chestnut Hill, previously authored “New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area” and “Central Park Trees and Landscapes.” He also wrote five children’s books for Readers Digest: on fishes, birds, frogs, foxes and butterflies.

Cyber Age Politics: News Industry Reform (January 22 at 1:30 PM) Political communication is theater and rhetoric through media. In this entertaining slide show, local author Stan Cutler explores our polarized  condition, the commercialized news industry and Federal regulation. He is the author of “Two Philadelphia Political Conventions: 1948 and 2016”,  six novels, an ex-PSU Communications prof, a retired IT guy, and popular teacher at Main Line School Night & Golden Slipper.

Civil War Medicine: What Went Right (January 29 at 1:30 PM) The extraordinary levels of battlefield carnage during the Civil War demanded a new, scientific approach to medicine – previously an art. Documentary film maker Carole Adrienne presents a compelling slide show from the 4-part series she is developing for PBS to premier on WHYY.

Chimpanzees, Jane and Me (February 5  at 1:30 PM) Scientist Bill Konstant tells stories about training chimpanzees in America, being inspired by the work of Dr. Jane Goodall, and helping to ensure the survival of chimpanzees in their native Africa.  He shares insights from a forty-year career as a wildlife preservationist on four continents – personal experiences with the world’s most endangered and interesting animals.

We are in the early stages of program development for the Spring and Fall Adult Programs, actively seeking ideas from local experts (educators, artists, writers, professionals, business people, etc.). If you have ideas or skills you would like to impart to your neighbors, please send us a proposal through our website.


#8 Challenge and Opportunity

The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library have organized a series of presentations for your edification and enjoyment; our schedule is at the end of this column. It’s a varied and unique lineup of thoughtful local presenters. We hope you were there for the first one, when our neighbor, arborist author Ned Barnard delivered a presentation on Philadelphia trees. There will be 3 more in the winter series. You should come. As important, you should consider proposing a presentation, a workshop, an exhibition, or a course of your own.

We have two assets: a spacious public room with presentation technology and a population of highly educated people, many of them experts with a lot on their minds. You may be one of those people. There are time slots still available on the Spring program calendar. Go to our website’s Contact page at and explain your idea. We are open to more than presentation suggestions. Would you like to run a workshop? Would you like to teach a course for adults? Would you like to host a panel discussion or demonstrate your talent or deliver podcasts? Be creative. We’re in an early phase of a project to establish the library as an outstanding center for lifelong learning. We would like to hear your ideas.

When the most advanced medium of communication was print on paper, public media centers (PMCs) were called libraries (from libros, Latin for book). Societies change when new media of communication come into use. The media revolution we are now experiencing is a challenge and an opportunity for public libraries.

The challenge is that people rely less on paper books and more on electronic devices and the internet. The opportunity is to use a public space that exists, as stated in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s mission statement, “To advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” These are lofty aims that the Chestnut Hill community is well-suited to achieving. If you want that kind of resource in Chestnut Hill, get involved.


# 9 High Attendance for Presentation

Around a hundred neighbors went to the library for a slide presentation about Philadelphia trees by authors Ned Barnard and Catriona Briger. Afterward, pleased to have learned so much, most folks lingered for hot cider, cookies and friendly conversation.

It was an auspicious event, like an opening kickoff or the top of the first inning. Our public media center, the branch library on Germantown Avenue, opened the community room for the first presentation to take place there since the drop-down projection screen broke years ago. No one can quite remember the last time it worked. New board members of the community association learned that there was no digital projector or sound system either. Thankfully, there are eighty comfortable chairs. To mount the current series of four presentations, the volunteer Friends of the Library rented equipment. (

The Free Library of Philadelphia owns and operates the precious resource, our public media center (PMC), the library at the top of the hill. But the City Council won’t appropriate enough money to afford repairs or capital improvements. When new Board members of the volunteer association were elected in the Fall, they learned that there had not been an Adult Librarian at our branch for over a year; that library hours had been drastically curtailed. Shame on City Council and the Mayor. This is important business.

The FLP is a media infrastructure, a City agency chartered to “To advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” Apparently, our elected officials see the branch library system as just another payroll in the portfolio. It’s hard to measure the FLP’s benefits – an enlightened civil society – so the bean counters who whisper in the politicians’ ears allow an essential infrastructure to wither.

It’s a new age. The rate at which cyber media technologies are being introduced is forcing rapid social change. The public needs to assert its rights in the face of this maelstrom. We have to be unmoving, stalwart against the changes. We want and shall have an enlightened democratic society. We shall have a public center in Chestnut Hill that serves all of us. Certainly, our children need the library. But learning doesn’t stop when we graduate. In fact, the older we get, the more we learn! Ned, who just co-authored a beautiful, terrifically organized guidebook on tree spotting, is a septuagenarian. The audience was an older crowd, lively and energized, eager to participate in public learning. (To find out more about our project, perhaps to join our volunteer group, go to


#10 Volunteers Plug Budget Gaps

I was supposed to deliver a slide presentation in an hour, in a mild panic because there was so much light in the Library’s community room that images I wanted to project onto the screen were barely visible. The four high windows can be covered by five-foot by seven-foot translucent shades that are supposed to be controlled from a switch panel in a utility closet. It took a while to find the switches and discover that they don’t work. No one remembers the last time they did.

The community room is big enough to serve as an auditorium for an audience of 100 neighbors. It used to have an electrically-controlled partition across the middle, also out of order. The walls are generously lined with storage closets for books, art supplies, and the miscellaneous remnants of forgotten programs. The motors embedded in the window frames function as locks that prevent the shades from being adjusted manually – even if you could reach them. The three other shades have been in the down position for a long time. I’m guessing that the one nearest the screen has been open since the turn of the 21st Century.

There are 54 Free Library of Philadelphia branches. Since the drastic 2008 budget cuts, money to adequately support the already woefully underfunded system has not been restored. The FLP has barely enough money to pay the dwindling number of professional librarians. Many branches are closed on weekends and open late during the week. Repairs? Maybe. Capital improvements? Nope. Despite these handicaps, the branches thrive because our librarians are dedicated and because people use the libraries all the time. The politicians would have to deal with a lot of angry citizens If a branch were to close.

The buildings are old. Ours dates back to 1909. Librarians fear the next clogged toilet, leaky faucet, broken window, busted thermostat or inoperable water fountain. The FLP will send someone to do the repair – next week, or next month, or whenever. Across the city, civic associations called Friends of the Library pay for minor repairs or do them themselves. In other words, an essential component of Philadelphia civic life is deteriorating. City Government does not value the system enough to meet its current or future obligations.

Because of the problems in the community room, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library  (  paid for the rental of a screen and projector for the current speaker series. But we need a permanent solution. We need to upgrade the facility for different kinds of presentations, for streaming media, to conduct classes and hands-on workshops. We have accepted proposals from vendors to provide and install the equipment. We’re going to pay for it from donations.

My talk on politics and news industry reform went well. It was the second one in our winter series of four presentations, the first to be delivered in the daytime. We reversed the room, moved the screen to the end with the shades closed, turned the chairs around, spun the cart that supported the portable projector, and moved the table with the cookies and the urn of hot cider. If we buy a ceiling-mounted projector, it will face only one way. Somebody’s going to have to fix the shades. If we fix the partition, we can double the number of program offerings.



Be the first to write a comment.

Your feedback