Creative Communities

William Penn Foundation bestows $25 million on Free Library for innovations, renovations

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2014
Source: NewsWorks/WHYY

The Free Library of Philadelphia has received the largest gift in its 120-year history: $25 million from the William Penn Foundation.

The donation is meant to transform the library into a vibrant, 21st-century institution.

Some of the gift – $7 million – will go to the ongoing renovation of the interior of the main Parkway Central Library, which plans to tear out most of the outdated storage stacks. The redesign will add 40,000 square feet of space to the historic building, most of which will be used for a new small-business and entrepreneurial center.

The bulk of the gift – $18 million – will go toward renovating a handful of neighborhood libraries. It goes a long way toward a $40 million "Building Inspiration" campaign to tailor branch libraries to fit the specific needs of their communities.

Toward that goal, the City of Philadelphia has chipped in $4.5 million, City Council has given $2 million, the state has promised $6 million, and private donors also have made contributions.

"It's nice that the thinking of the organization – its strategic plan – has finally reached a place where people are saying, 'I get this now,'" said library president and director Siobhan Reardon.

Five years ago, the Free Library system was on the chopping block, as the cash-strapped city threatened to close several branches to save money. City residents roared back.

"Clearly, the city of Philadelphia in 2008, 2009, said, 'Nuh uh, you're not touching our libraries,'" said Reardon. "That was monumental. How can we take advantage of that vibe? How can we turn that into something that's much more responsive to the community that really wants its libraries?"

Since the rise of the Internet, the importance of public libraries as repositories of books has lessened. Reardon believed libraries were still vital, but needed to know exactly how. Through a process of community forums she learned, for example, that people near the Lillian Marrero Library in North Philadelphia needed information tailored to immigrants and early childhood literacy, while residents near the Tacony library wanted a small-business center.

Other branch libraries have established community partners. The Lovett Memorial branch has partnered with the Mt. Airy USA community development corporation to renovate the library and the adjacent park. And the South Philadelphia branch has partnered with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to build a consumer health resource center.

Some of those libraries were built a century ago, with money and architecture begotten of Andrew Carnegie. They are obsolete now.

"All these old Carnegies have this mountain of steps," said Reardon. "Remember, you are walking into a temple of knowledge, so you have to climb this mountain to get into the temple. That doesn't work in the 21st century. We have to make sure our services are ubiquitous."

Much of the William Penn money will go toward renovation to make the facilities easier to access physically, as well as psychologically. Reardon says people with low literacy skills often feel intimidated entering the imposing buildings. The libraries will be redesigned with comfort in mind, and with staffing that relates to the needs of the community.

"Books are the tools, computers are the tools – we have lots of tools," said Reardon. "What's important now is how the library staff and that community begin to blend."

The $25 million gift is the largest the William Penn Foundation has given to anybody, ever. Executive director Laura Sparks says it is mostly due to Reardon's leadership.

"We feel it can serve as an example for institutions in Philadelphia and the nation," said Sparks. "I think Philadelphia is leading the country in terms of trying to reimagine what libraries can do and how libraries can be responsive to community needs across the country."

Most of the five branch libraries will begin renovations in the next several months, causing them to close for over a year. The renovation of the Central Branch stacks is expected to begin sometime next year.

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