Quaker legacy inspires historic cemetery to reopen school library

Local schoolkids visit the cemetery. Image courtesy of Historic Fair Hill.

Historic Fair Hill, the nonprofit caretaker of a 300-year-old Quaker burial ground situated in the heart of North Philadelphia, has long considered itself more than a musty old graveyard. It also maintains a community garden, holds history lessons and tours for nearby schools, and sends volunteers into schools to read to students.

“Quakers are really interested in social justice, so it’s not enough for us to just maintain a historic site,” says Jean Warrington, executive director of the nonprofit. “That’s certainly the first thing we do. But how are you going to make history work for social justice in the present?”

Following that ideal, the organization is now committed to its most ambitious community project yet: reopening the library at Julia De Burgos Elementary, a K-8 public school located just a few blocks away.

No library at school

Warrington learned that the library was closed earlier this year when volunteers for its reading program reported back.

“We had been there about two weeks when somebody saw that the library was being used for storage,” Warrington says. In fact, due to budget cuts, it had been closed since 2010.

The idea of an elementary school not providing access to a library was untenable for Warrington. She notes that learning to read can become a major challenge for people who don’t achieve it by fourth grade.

Her plan is to leverage Historic Fair Hill’s volunteer network to organize and eventually staff the library. But to get over the initial hurdle of setting up a functioning library with quality books and software, Warrington called in an expert.  

Getting books where they’re needed

Jessica Kahn, a retired education professor at Chestnut Hill College, has made it her post-career goal to reopen as many libraries as possible in the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District. She has reopened dozens of libraries by moving books from places where there are too many, such as nearby suburban schools or businesses, to inner-city schools that lack nurses and guidance counselors, let alone quality books.

In most cases, she does this work on her own or with the help of a few friends and former colleagues. But with Historic Fair Hill backing her up, she has a small group of volunteers and resources at her disposal. One community member donated $10,000 towards the effort.

“I have never worked with community partners who are as invested in the school as these people are,” Kahn says. This is essential, she adds, because in her experience schools are simply too preoccupied just staying afloat to really focus on these types of project.

In the meantime, Kahn is hard at work finding the right books to make the library complete. Right now she is particularly interested in current nonfiction. “I’ve just gone through all of the nonfiction in this library and the newest copyright is 2003,” she says. “That’s all right if you’re talking about spiders, which probably haven’t changed dramatically since 2003. But it’s not all right if you’re talking about technology.”

Anyone interested in donating can email Kahn at jessicakahn7045@gmail.com.

At right: The people behind the new library. From left: volunteer and board member Jean Hurd, professor and library organizer Jessica Kahn, architects Vincent Rivera and Jane Rath, and volunteer Lee Kowalski. Image via HistoricFairHill.org.