Pew Study: Philadelphia Free Library, Like Other Big-City Libraries, Struggles to Keep up with Residents' Changing Demands

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Pew Study: Philadelphia Free Library, Like Other Big-City Libraries, Struggles to Keep up with Residents' Changing Demands

A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative finds that the Free Library of Philadelphia, like urban libraries across America, is struggling to keep up with the changing demands of city residents who have come to rely on their neighborhood libraries to perform an ever-wider range of functions.

“The Library in the City: Changing Demands and A Challenging Future,” which includes results of a poll on Philadelphians' attitudes toward their libraries, examines the role being played by the Free Library and big-city library systems across the country. It finds that these institutions often support and complement the work of other public agencies in ways that go largely unrecognized. 

Due partly to their role as society's default provider of computer and Internet access, today's urban libraries help residents—including those with limited incomes and educations—find jobs and connect to government services and benefits. Libraries offer safe after-school havens for children and places where immigrants can learn English. And they still lend books and DVDs.

“Hard economic times have increased residents' dependence on their libraries and left libraries with fewer resources with which to respond,” said Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative. “The question is whether libraries will have the funds and the flexibility to keep adapting to changing circumstances and technologies in the years ahead.”

To see how well the Free Library is meeting the needs of Philadelphians, and to understand the challenges facing other urban libraries, the Philadelphia Research Initiative examined the Free Library's operations and compared them to those of 14 other library systems: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Queens, San Francisco and Seattle.

Among these systems, for instance, Philadelphia ranks 11th in the number of public-access computers per capita. In almost every Free Library branch, there are not enough computers to meet demand; computer use has grown 80 percent across the system in the last six years.

On a per capita basis, overall library spending in Philadelphia is slightly below the average for the communities studied. Between 2008 and 2010, when municipal budgets were hit hard by the recession, the Free Library experienced larger cutbacks than many of its counterparts. During that period, there was a 1,000 percent increase in the number of hours that branches were closed unexpectedly due to staffing and maintenance issues.

The Free Library is below average among cities studied in terms of per capita visits and circulation of print and CD/ DVD materials, although total visits and circulation have increased in recent years. It is well above average in per capita attendance at library programs.

The Free Library has been slower to adapt to the changing needs of its population than some other big-city libraries, which have moved more aggressively to open centers for teenagers, adjust branch hours to encourage maximum patronage, and revamp their central libraries. Officials at the Free Library said they have plans to take action on several of these fronts; last week, they opened a new teen area at the main branch, Parkway Central.

The Philadelphia Research Initiative posed a series of questions about the city's libraries to 1,600 Philadelphians in a telephone survey. Among the results are these:

  • Fifty-one percent say they visited the library at least once in the past 12 months, and 30 percent went at least once a month.
  • Fifty-seven percent of adult library patrons used a library computer for Internet access, and most did so at least once a month. Usage is higher, 67 percent, among individuals with household incomes under $30,000, supporting the widely-held belief that libraries play an essential role in bridging the so-called “digital divide.”
  • Fifty-six percent of Philadelphians say that closing their local branch library would have a “major impact” on the neighborhood. Should more budget cuts be necessary, residents would prefer to see reductions in branch hours as opposed to branch closings.

Based on the recent experiences of the libraries in Philadelphia and in the other cities, the report discusses some of the challenges and policy options facing the Free Library. Among them are:

  • Prioritizing services in an age of limited resources. Library management has to make choices, deciding how much to spend on what its patrons want, and what to allocate for such functions as the stewardship of its special collections.
  • Simplifying the library's complex and multi-layered governing structure with a view toward increasing the library's ability to respond to changing demands and circumstances.
  • Making Parkway Central a more welcoming place, particularly for young people, without diverting resources from the branches, on which fourth-fifths of library users rely and many of which have maintenance needs.

Read more and access a PDF of the report.

These findings will be the subject of a panel discussion on March 14 at 6 p.m. at the Parkway Central library, 1901 Vine Street. The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required at

About the Report
“The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future” was written by consultant Claire Shubik-Richards and senior associate Emily Dowdall. Polling data comes from a telephone survey conducted between January 4 and January 19 among a citywide random sample of 1,600 Philadelphia residents, ages 18 and older. Interviews were conducted with 1,200 landline users and 400 cell phone users to reach a broad representative sample of Philadelphians. The final sample was weighted to reflect the demographic breakdown of the city. The margin of error for the entire sample is approximately +/- 2.5 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.

About The Philadelphia Research Initiative
The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative provides timely, impartial research and analysis on key issues facing Philadelphia for the benefit of the city's citizens and leaders. Pew is a nonprofit organization that applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

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