American public libraries: importance of, threats to, opportunities for

By stancutler,

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Short Essays by Stanley Cutler

#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.



# 12     Mrs. Bryce Harper Invited to Attend a Chestnut Hill Library Event

The Harpers are house hunting,  looking for a Delaware Valley neighborhood where they can “dig roots” and raise a family. Our neighborhood ought to be on their list, don’t you think? We are a baseball friendly community with sand lot games at the Water Tower and a youth league. In case you’ve somehow escaped the media hype, the young man, Bryce Harper, just agreed to receive $330 million dollars to play for the Phillies until the year 2032, the most money ever promised to a baseball player. Icing on the cake, because we’re inside the City limits, the Harpers can save $5 million in wage taxes as Philly residents over the life of the contract.

As it happens, the Chestnut Hill Branch Library’s Spring Speaker Series begins with a baseball talk by local data scientist Lindsey Murdah.  Lindsey has been poring over baseball statistics for sixty years and has come to some fascinating conclusions. Mr. Harper will be in Clearwater that day, but his wife Kayla could come, meet some of the neighbors and check out the neighborhood. Mrs. Harper, this is your invitation.

We received so many offers to speak in our series that we had to divide the season in two. There will be a Tuesday afternoon series of five presentations, every other week at 1:30 in the community room at the back of the library at 8711 Germantown Avenue. There will also be two discussion events at other times. Here’s the Spring Calendar.


  • March 12 BASEBALL: THE NUMBERS GAME – Lindsey Murdah, former statistics professor reveals the truth of the numbers and implications for the Phillies’ 2019 prospects
  • March 26 TRUTH VS. FAKE NEWS IN THE TRUMP ERA – Peter Lewis, former NY Times editor and Stanford journalism professor, discusses the risks and challenges facing American citizens in the unstable media environment of the moment
  • April 9 MEDICAL MARIJUANA – Wanda Beilenson, pharmacist in State of PA marijuana dispensary
  • April 23 WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LENAPE? – Claude Epstein, former Stockton Professor, expert on impacts of European development on Delaware Valley’s native people and natural resources
  • May 7 MUSIC AND MEMORY, Marja Kaisla, concert pianist and educator, reveals latest findings on the remarkable power of music to inhibit the symptoms of dementia


  • March 20, Wednesday, 6 PM – EARLY LITERACY, Christine Heimer,  primary teacher with forty years of experience explains ways to turn children into avid readers
  • April 11, Thursday, 1:30 PM – THE NOVELS OF ELENA FERRANTE: SECRETS OF THEIR POWER, Karen Bojar reveals hidden dimensions of the sensationally popular Neapolitan Quartet. Karen is a former CCP literature and women’s studies professor, NOW executive, and City Committeewoman


# 13  Mayor’s Budget Proposal Shorts Libraries

Last Monday, a bitter cold day, we had to cancel the “Advocacy Café”. We had promoted the event in this space as a workshop for volunteers to learn ways of persuading the Mayor and City Council to adequately fund the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). We had to cancel the event because the furnace quit and the lights only worked in spots, forcing the library to close. It took until Tuesday afternoon before the library could reopen. The irony is painful.

Healthy organizations invest in preventive maintenance because it is cost effective, cheaper and better in the long run than equipment replacement and repairs. When organizations fail, it often starts with a reduction in maintenance spending. Our Library infrastructure is a network of 54 branches, the enormous, ninety-year old Parkway Central building, and six computer hot spots. The fact that all 60 facilities are open to the public most of the time is remarkable, a significant achievement that has required sincere dedication by the FLP’s workers. I thank them.

Our branch in Chestnut Hill was built 110 years ago and has been retrofit countless times. The building usually functions well, it is still a warm, welcoming place. But it is vulnerable to all the ills that result from inadequately resourced preventive maintenance. The FLP has never recovered from the funding crisis of 2008. Between Fiscal 2008 and 2010, the Free Library’s income from local, state and federal sources fell 19%. Every budget since then has used the 2008 allocation as a baseline.

Year after year, City allocations fail to rise. Library hours are shortened, salaries flat-lined, staffing levels reduced, less spent on inspection and prevention. Less than 1% of all City spending in the 2018-19 General Fund was allocated to the FLP. The FLP asked for an allocation of $63 million from the City’s FY 2019-20 operating budget. In last Wednesday’s budget presentation, the Mayor proposed an allocation of $50 million, still under 1% of the City’s total operating budget and far short of the FLP’s minimal needs.

Unscheduled shutdowns occur all over the city for reasons like the one that closed our branch last Monday and Tuesday. The day when branch libraries will be closed permanently because they are so badly deteriorated that money will no longer be available to repair them is not far off. What kind of enlightened society allows its libraries to fail? What kind of government assigns so little value to libraries? What kind of future are we creating?



# 14 Local Library Acquires New and Old Technologies

Last Tuesday, a local data scientist and baseball nut, Lindsey Murdah, delivered a talk to a gathering of similarly deranged neighbors in  the library’s community room.  So, the cumulative value of the bases loaded provides the ultimate statistic for the addled mind. Assuming you’re not among the addled,  I’ll skip the details and tell you that we all learned a lot and met a new bunch of geeks. We, The Friends organization, provided boxes of Cracker Jack and bags of unshelled peanuts to heighten the mood. We wanted to play “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” on our rented sound system as the room was filling, but we couldn’t quite get the technology to work.

The technology! Libraries are media technology hubs, free places devoid of commercial pollution where citizens can access books, the internet, the Free Library’s vast multi-media collection, or gather for music, lectures, workshops, seminars and so on. A piano is music technology. Thanks to local restaurateur John Egan (Tavern On The Hill), we now have one. We intend to use it for sessions on music appreciation and performance.

Books and pianos are objects that are esteemed for their humanity, their ability to transport us in personal, emotional ways.  I love the internet. I also enjoy the experience of paper books and live music. In fact, given the choice, I prefer tangible media to their digitized forms. As you may have noticed, more and more people prefer the cyber versions. So be it. The Library is there for all of us.

Soon, we won’t have to rent what we need for digitized presentations like Lindsey’s. We are in the process of acquiring a permanent suite of high-tech audio-visual equipment. The installation should be finished sometime in May. In the meanwhile, we’re renting the technology we’re using for the Spring program (below). We are excited about the experts we’ve lined up, all local folks with fascinating knowledge. Join us – the rented technology works. Next time, music will (probably) be playing as you’re coming in.  And go to     . It’s a cool website of interest to everyone in our neighborhood.


# 15 Library Hosts a Discussion of Fake News

The Free Library of Philadelphia prohibits the use of its facilities for political purposes. This is a good and necessary rule. But how can we abide by the rule when literacy itself is under attack by a political force? The President is antagonistic toward everything The Library is for.

I do not work for The Library, I am merely a “Friend”, one of hundreds of Philadelphians who are organized to support the institution as a civic responsibility. Donald Trump is the elephant in our room, a politician who has made literacy and civil discourse political issues.

Last Tuesday, local journalist Peter Lewis delivered a talk on fake news to an audience of fifty in our branch library’s community room. Peter put the concept into historical perspective, concluding with the 21st Century collapse of local newspapers and the disturbing prospect of an America without them.  The big crowd was fully engaged, voicing opinions and posing serious questions following an excellent  presentation. Audience members advocated school curricula emphasizing critical thinking, for a more forceful FCC, for more librarians in Philadelphia schools, for using the library to train young reporters and other innovative ideas.

The concept of evidentiary truth is the bedrock  of academia, science and law.  The big turnout for Peter’s talk indicates that many neighbors, like me, feel that the President’s style of rhetoric disdains the concept to such an extent that he poses a unique threat to our form of democracy. It was a congregation of citizens who revere Enlightenment values. I can’t think of a better use for an American library’s community room.


# 16 Trump Intends to Eliminate Public Libraries

 In Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, there is zero funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that provides library and museum grants, policy development, and research. Defunding the IMLS would effectively end all federal funding of public libraries. His budget also cuts funding to the Department of Education by 10%, including all support for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program.

Public libraries are hybrids that need multiple funding sources.  The Free Library of Philadelphia, for example, relies heavily the Philadelphia Library Foundation’s endowment and annual fund drives. Small donations from groups like ours, Friends of the Library, are used to fill in gaps and supplement professional staff with volunteer services. Without political support, these supplementary nutrients will have to increase  significantly in the 21st Century if public libraries are to thrive.

Worldwide, libraries are evolving, adapting to new media technologies and the social changes that accompany them.  Budgeting authorities in every country and at every level challenge public library administrators to prove that they are not obsolete repositories of media that people no longer want or use. What’s a library for? Why is it important enough to allocate scarce resources?

Readers have an affection for libraries – a nostalgia recalling memories of happy childhoods enlightened by the magic of the written word. Because digitized content can be delivered more quickly and cheaply than print on paper, libraries now provide unlimited, free access to digitized media. Is that enough? We, absent any public support, have that access through devices in our pockets and desks.  So, what’s at stake?

Everything that people like Donald Trump hate. Our library is a non-sectarian, apolitical, non-commercial place dedicated to ideas, community and the freedom to learn. The Trump budget is more than the equivalent of a massive book bonfire, it’s a calculated attack on American civic life. He is against public libraries. He thinks they are unnecessary. Do you?


# 17.5 Where Are the Leni Lenape? 

Seventy people came to the library branch on Germantown Avenue on April 23rd  to hear Claude Epstein’s presentation about an intriguing Philadelphia mystery – what happened to the people who lived here before white men? In elementary school, we learned that folks who called themselves the Leni Lenape were a peaceful society who…?   What else? Oh yes, William Penn’s son, Thomas, cheated them out of a lot of land in the early 1700s.

We have seen movies featuring Apaches, Commanches, Cheyenne, Iroquois, Seminole,  Mohicans and Inuits.  But what about “our” Indians? Why aren’t they neighbors? Where did they go? Are they okay? Why are there no Lenape reservations?  Poof! Vanished! Perhaps they are mythical, like leprechauns.

Apparently, these questions have occurred to many of us, which is why we ran out of chairs last Tuesday, why late-comers had to stand in the back.  In itself,  that’s remarkable. A couple of months ago, when we started the Friends’ of the Library Speakers Series, we didn’t know whether anyone would show up on a weekday afternoon to sit still for a speaker.  We put out a call for local experts to propose presentation ideas, not knowing whether anyone would offer. That was just last December. Now, it seems, we have our answers – many people in our community are hungry for intellectual stimulation and there are a good number of us with fascinating knowledge they want to share.

Professor Epstein’s talk provided some of the answers to the Lenape mystery. In a nutshell, they moved west and assimilated with other groups. We learned details of why they moved – a sad story of war and real estate, of commerce and inhumanity, of technology and change.   We had some out-of-towners, too. Somehow, word got out beyond Chestnut Hill. Strangers, experts on the Lenape, showed up and augmented Professor Epstein’s excellent presentation, offering their insights during the Q & A.

Four hundred years from now, will Philadelphians wonder what libraries were like? Will these learning centers  have disappeared like the Lenape long houses and the log cabins of the Forest Finns?  Will the gracious Carnegie Libraries, like our gem on Germantown Avenue, be buried rubble?  Iron tools profoundly changed Lenape society. Cyber technologies are having as profound an effect on us. What will become of libraries?

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