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Employment rates in the Hartranft neighborhood of North Philadelphia are low. Crime and poverty rates are high. As nearly half of the population is Hispanic, a number of the residents struggle with English as their second language. Many children living here come from single parent households.
Siobhan A. Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia system, calls this area a “resource desert.”
“The resources that are available in the neighborhood are below par,” she elaborated. “There’s limited access to good food, limited access to good healthcare. It’s a substantially low income neighborhood, with low literacy, and low digital literacy.”
Located in the heart of the Hartranft neighborhood, the Lillian Marrero Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia system was built in 1906 with funds from Andrew Carnegie. It’s an impressive but solemn looking building, with a pillared classical façade that conjures up a stuffy, old-fashioned image of the library.
When some of the building’s failing structural systems required updating, the image of the library needed to be updated as well. It was time to better reflect the dynamic ways the neighborhood is actually using the library, and for the library to better serve the unique challenges of the surrounding community.
According to Reardon, two priority influences on programming and design of the renovated library space are: 1) immigration, as this is largely a non-English- (or limited English-) speaking Hispanic community; 2) support for young school children who are already at risk of falling behind their peers in schools.
As the majority of families who depend on the Lillian Marrero Library are single-parent households (often, according to Reardon, the second parent has been incarcerated), the library serves as a safe after-school place for many children. Additionally, adults who frequent the library are predominantly there to use the computers, looking for jobs or other kinds of information.
The library tried its best to accommodate the needs of this population. The staff is largely bilingual. Teens serve as volunteer mentors to the younger students. But, despite these efforts, the existing structures proved inhibitive. The library and its users had simply outgrown the old library model.
The Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries initiative, a partnership of the Free Library of Philadelphia with the William Penn Foundation, the City of Philadelphia, and other generous private supporters, provided an opportunity to re-imagine and re-establish the library as a central resource for learning, economic opportunity, public services and community engagement in every neighborhood.
In researching the reasons why local residents visit the library, Reardon said a surprising discovery emerged. According to 2010-2011 Pew Survey, 34% of Free Library of Philadelphia users came looking for health information.
“This isn’t a resource we had readily provided,” Reardon said. “And visitors weren’t using library resources. They were using the internet, looking up their symptoms and trying to make diagnoses for themselves. For a lot of people, this is alternative to seeking medical help when healthcare is inaccessible. Of course, this an inaccurate way to discover medical information, with potentially dangerous results. It’s even more challenging for people who have limited English skills.”
Would it be possible to create a collaborative effort between health and literacy agencies in response to this need? Because there aren’t really any models for such an innovative concept, it would require lots of trial and error to make it work.
But last summer, the South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center celebrated its grand opening. This facility includes a pediatric clinic, a primary-care center and a library branch with a special section where patients can learn more about their health issues.
This is just one of the myriad ways the Free Library of Philadelphia system is adjusting its services to accommodate the needs of the community.
In this spirit, a major renovation – and a major reinvention – are currently under way at the Lillian Marrero Library. Reardon is thrilled to talk about the innovations and improvements – all based on community input – that are expected when the library re-opens this fall.
“This process represents a paradigm shift in the way the library functions,” she explained. “The library is evolving in response to the needs of the community. Every decision we’ve made about the library renovations have been vetted by the community.”
The remodeled, re-energized space will be better equipped to address the needs of the neighborhood, with separate learning areas designed to enhance learning and engagement with teens, school-aged children and preschoolers. There will also be more learning opportunities for grown-ups, with technology training to advance digital literacy in the expanded computer lab. A new main entrance into the building will improve handicap accessibility.
The hub of the re-designed Lillian Marrero Library is a vibrant “living room,” which Reardon envisions as “the center of the community” with seating and banquette tables set up for classes, meetings, events and conversations.
“People living in this neighborhood are good people and they struggle every day to make their way in the world,” Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney told Philly.com after touring the construction site in February. “To have something as beautiful as this, as accessible as this, and as educational and mind-expanding as this, is a wonderful thing for people to have in their neighborhood.”
Initiated by Dr. William Pepper, the Free Library of Philadelphia was chartered in 1891 as "a general library which shall be free to all." Pepper received initial funding for the library through a $225,000 bequest from his wealthy uncle, George S. Pepper. However, litigation arose as several existing libraries claimed the bequest. The Free Library finally opened in March of 1894 after the courts decided the money was intended to found a new public library.
Over the years, numerous neighborhood libraries have been added to the Free Library system, many of them funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who donated $1.5 million for neighborhood library construction in 1903. Today, the Free Library is composed of Parkway Central Library, three large regional libraries, 49 neighborhood libraries, community Hot Spots, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Regional Research and Operations Center, and the Rosenbach.
In 2008, Reardon joined the Free Library of Philadelphia as President and Director, the first woman to serve in this capacity. She brought with her an ambitious mission to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Her achievements earned high praise and accolades from the Library Journal, which named her 2015 Librarian of the Year, for “marking a turnaround for this important but embattled library.”
Learn more about the Lillian Marrero Library.
Image: By Davidt8 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons