Big changes at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Philadelphia's library, reinvented

Quick: Name three things that come to mind when you think of the Free Library of Philadelphia. If they all involve paper and binding, it’s been too long since you wound through a library turnstile.

One thing that won’t change: the majestic main staircase at the Central branch. (Photo by Gmonkey via Creative Commons/flickr)

Today, the Free Library is as likely to host a yoga class as a book club. It’s where people go to find jobs, learn to cook, get small business assistance, improve their English, and — oh yes — find something to read.

One recent late-summer weekend, you could have picked up computer tips in Cobbs Creek and West Philadelphia, taken your little one to sign language story time in South Philadelphia, attended a William Faulkner seminar and celebrated Pippi Longstocking’s 70th birthday in the Northeast, and heard a live performance of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at Parkway Central. All free, all at Philadelphia libraries. 

Embracing the revolution

Far from being crushed by the tectonic shift in information access, use, and storage, the Free Library has embraced the revolution, continuing to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity with evolving services and facilities.

The mission hasn’t changed; the methods have merely been transformed to meet the needs of users in a digitized, multimedia, instantly available universe. By 2012, the library’s website received more visits than any of its 61 physical locations. The site allows patrons to virtually reserve materials, obtain branch and programming information, access and download content, and listen to podcasts of the Free Library’s nationally known author series, which brings respected thinkers, artists, humorists, novelists, chefs, commentators, and scholars to Parkway Central. An archive of more than 3,000 previous talks can be accessed online, and this year, many will be available in real-time.

“Today’s Free Library of Philadelphia still offers rows of great books,” says Alix Gerz, director of communications for the library, “but also provides access to digital books, music, and video; presents programming about horticulture and health; hosts comprehensive résumé-writing and job-search workshops; and engages in great conversations with renowned authors."

Reconfiguring structures, services

The ongoing transformation, which began in 2008, has been fueled by numerous gifts. The most prominent of these,  $25 million from the William Penn Foundation, was announced in September in 2014 and is the largest-ever private gift received by the Free Library. Those funds, with other public and private gifts, enabled the library to undertake a big-picture initiative to increase flexibility and efficiency for current and future users in a project called Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries. The project began at the center, a multifocal renovation of Parkway Central, the 1927 beaux-arts heart of the Free Library system, while addressing the most urgent needs in the branches.

Several portions of the massive makeover have been completed. Parkway Central’s curb appeal has been seen to: Out front, Shakespeare Park, which welcomes visitors from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, has been refreshed. The stone has been cleaned, front steps repaired, and windows replaced. Just inside, the eye is drawn to the brightness of Philbrick Hall, Parkway Central’s lending library, completed in 2012 to offer more space, natural light, unobstructed views, and shelving that better displays circulating materials. Philbrick Hall also offers comfortable lipstick-red seating, inviting those who wander in to stay for awhile, and includes a dedicated Teen Center.

New ops center preserves access, provides space

One of the biggest achievements of the renovation hides behind the grand marble staircase facing Vine Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway beyond. Behind those stairs once stood the stacks — half a million less-circulated volumes, housed in an area closed to the public. These infrequently used books and bound periodicals were relocated early this year to the new Regional Research and Operations Center (RROC) at 34th and Grays Ferry Avenue, opening two more floors at Parkway Central for public use.

Besides providing climate-controlled storage and compact shelving for materials, the 32,000 square foot RROC accommodates maintenance supplies, branch and system services, and parking for a fleet of 28 vehicles. Circulating materials can be transferred from the RROC to anywhere in the system in a few days, while research materials can be sent to Parkway Central or used on-site. Only one special collection was relocated, Children’s Literature Research, which, along with all RROC-stored materials, remains “fully accessible to our customers,” says Gerz, ”and can be requested at any time.”

The library as town square

The once-restricted space at Parkway Central will be reimagined, explains Gerz. “We will be able to convert this area into beautiful public space in the form of the Common, the Business Research and Innovation Center, and a new Teen Center.” Think of the Common as a town square for civic interaction, consistent with the Free Library’s expansion of services and community collaboration.

A similar reinvention is taking place in South Philadelphia, where the library at Broad and Morris closed in 2013. It’s being rebuilt and will combine with the District Health Center next door to form an integrated Community Health and Literacy Center, a partnership of the Free Library, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation. When open, the facility will be a crossroads for children and adults, new arrivals and longtime neighbors.

Back at Parkway Central, the Rare Book Department has added new space for changing exhibits and museum-quality conservation, and the Music Department, which houses the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music — the world’s largest lending library of orchestral performance material — has been updated. On the building’s upper levels, the Skyline Room and fourth floor have changed dramatically. A Culinary Literacy Center opened in 2014, offering a professional demonstration kitchen in which visitors can enhance both culinary literacy and build understanding of language, math, and science through lessons in cooking and nutrition. In its first year, the center, which includes conference and event space, hosted more than 300 public and private programs for children, seniors, veterans, millennials, and other groups.

On top of Parkway Central’s interior changes is a green roof, the first installed on any City of Philadelphia-owned building. Completed in 2008, it is an oasis of 5,000 square feet and 5,400 plants, providing natural insulation, stormwater management, and protection for the treasures below, whether printed, digitized, or human.


Editor’s note: While looking for photos to run with this story, I came across the Free Library’s collection of images suitable for your Facebook cover page, e-reader, smartphone, or tablet. How cool are these? [Judy Weightman].


Above right: April 24, 1929: The Saint George's Society dedicates a Shakespeare Memorial by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder and architect Wilson Eyre across Vine Street from the Central Library entrance. (Photo courtesy Free Library of Philadelphia)

Above left: The Central Branch on Logan Circle is topped with a green roof. (Photo via Delaware Valley Green Building Council)

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Philadelphia, PA on September 01, 2015

These innovations sound exciting and are no doubt necessary if the Free Library is to remain a relevant institution. But it ought to be mentioned that the Free Library is surviving by transforming itself into something other than a library — a community center, perhaps.

Mary E. Hazard

of Philadelphia, PA on September 02, 2015

i agree that our library — like Chicago's main, many years ago — seems to be metamorphosing into a community center. I was reassured by the library as site for literacy when I joined a four-day tour of neighborhood libraries and saw how dedicated and how effective the staff is in motivating their clients to read. Often, immigrant families were present, each of several children eagerly reading and learning. Multilingual services are often available.

As a researcher and a reader of serious literature, I regret the reduced access to both the older and the more demanding literary works. The Rare Book Room, though, has a marvelous digital collection of historical material, and the on-line "hold" system eventually delivers circulating copies of newer books.

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