On your stroll to Hip City Veg or Saxby’s, it’s hard to miss the building at the corner of 40th and Walnut. Boasting a clean white brick facade and the “The Free Library of Philadelphia” etched over the door, the Walnut Street West Library is a staple in the West Philadelphia community. Penn students are certainly familiar with libraries—whether it’s finishing up your Spanish homework in Van Pelt, or working through a problem set in Fisher Fine Arts. But the public library is just as noteworthy as any college library and remains a vital part of any community.
The Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia is an organization that wants people to get excited about their local libraries. Individual chapters around the city plan programming events for their local branches, such as hosting egg hunts for Easter or inviting Penn Lions to their Lunar New Years celebrations. These chapters function under a citywide organization that advocates for the continued success of the Free Library system.
While Friends of the Free Library is enthusiastic about everything the library has to offer, they also want to bring attention to how underfunded these institutions are. Due to severe staffing shortages, around one in seven Philadelphia libraries can’t fully open for their full hours each day. Very few branches are open past 6 p.m., and no branches are currently open on the weekends—making libraries inaccessible to many working people and their families.
In response to these citywide issues, Friends of the Free Library is calling for a $30 million increase in the annual Free Library budget. With this increased budget, libraries around the city will be able to hire more staff, keeping libraries open for longer with more consistent hours. The organization has recently gained the support of several city council members and is approaching the mayor with their demands.
Linda Colwell–Smith, interim co–director of Friends of the Free Library, firmly believes that public libraries are worth funding. She says that Philadelphia “[has] an absolute gem of a system” and that at her local branch of the Torresdale library, people of all ages use the library as a meeting place.
Sabirah Mahmud (C ‘25) grew up in Philadelphia and regularly visited the Walnut Street West Library. She recalls many positive experiences there, from renting The Princess Diaries to learning how to play competitive chess. “I think the Free Library has always been really important, in the sense that it's provided a free alternative to a lot of programming that's often barred because of finances,” Sabirah says. Libraries are special, as they’re one of the few spaces that are open to everyone, regardless of background or ability to pay. Accessibility is the name of the game at the Free Library, and branches also provide free tutoring through the LEAP After School Program, which is open to any of the students in the area. Colwell–Smith says that before COVID–19, there would be around 50 kids coming to the library after school to get help with their homework.
Libraries in Philadelphia are one of the few options for kids to access free extracurricular activities. The slashing of government programs has affected many departments in recent years, including schools and other programs dedicated for children. Alice Wells, President of the Friends of the Street Walnut West Library, points out that many of the libraries in elementary, middle, and high schools around Philadelphia remain closed. “The doors are closed … the books are gathering dust and getting old and nobody's looking at them … we live in potentially a library desert as far as schools are concerned,” Wells says.
This unfortunate reality highlights the necessity of the Free Library to stay open consistently. “When the city libraries are closed unexpectedly and you can't count on them to be open when you get there, it really does become a library desert,” Wells says. Kids shouldn’t have to wonder if their local library is going to be open after school, or if they have to wait until Monday to borrow a book they have their eye on. The public can only benefit when libraries are open on a consistent schedule and have enough staff members to meet the needs of community members.
Teenagers also regularly spend time at the Free Library as a safe space away from their parents and schools. Henry McDaniel (C ‘25) grew up in Philadelphia, visiting the Free Library throughout his life. “It was certainly a place where I felt at home, and it was a good way to interact with the community,” Henry says. In high school, he heard about a music composition workshop on social media and attended a session at the main branch of the Free Library. Now at Penn, he’s taking a class with the same instructor who taught that workshop, furthering his passion for music.
Librarians want to design programs that cater to the community’s interests so that everyone feels welcome at the library. Colwell–Smith talks about their many successful programs aimed at young people, with an “anime club” being especially popular at her Torresdale branch. “We actually had an anime artist come in. And it was all preteens and teenagers learning to [draw] anime. And then we put out a little booklet towards the end of some of their stuff,” she says. Stories like this ring true at library branches throughout the city, with teenagers seeking out the library as a place where they can exercise their newfound independence and explore programs and activities that interest them.
Colwell–Smith also mentions that many adults come to her local library to use the computers or ask the librarians for advice. “We provide a lot of job assistance for folks looking for jobs, [and] a lot of help with taxes,” she says. “The IRS forms and the booklets, you can't get them anywhere anymore, you have to get them online. A lot of folks just don't know how to do that or they're not very computer literate. And that's what we're here to help them with.” Colwell–Smith emphasizes that one of the library’s core purposes is to make information accessible to the general public.
Librarians play a key role in making sure libraries remain welcoming places. But with the lack of library funding, it’s becoming more difficult for them to do their jobs. Wells points out that libraries are often wrongly assumed to be a merely quiet and calm space. “It really isn't,” she says. “You're dealing with the public, you're dealing with staff. It's a tough job,” she says. Wells points out the fact that many libraries are understaffed and each branch should ideally have a children’s, teen/adult, and managing librarian in order to fully meet the needs of their community.
Friends of the Free Library’s ongoing advocacy has been focused on highlighting the lack of funding set aside for librarians, and the immense benefits that more resources would bring. One of their main actions has been “storytime” rallies around the city, where they invite families to come out for “stories, songs, snacks, city budgets information, and petitions to Mayor Kenney.” At one of these rallies, Wells describes how a librarian led an interactive lesson on the city budget, utilizing a felt board with icons depicting different city departments such as parks and recreation and the police. Underneath these icons were little green squares that represented a portion of the city budget. Kids were able to see a visual representation of how underfunded libraries are, and voiced their opinions by moving more green squares to their beloved libraries.
Friends of the Free Library encourages supporters to utilize their toolkit to find ways to post on social media, contact city council members, and attend future events. Despite ongoing challenges, Colwell–Smith is hopeful about the future of the campaign. “The campaign has been absolutely astounding. The enthusiasm of city council, the general public, our friends members—it's been great,” she says.
Both Colwell–Smith and Wells acknowledge that Philadelphia has gone through a rough last decade, with both the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID–19 pandemic contributing to the decrease in the Free Library’s budget. But it’s clear that Philadelphians are passionate about their libraries and demand more support for these essential services. Colwell–Smith notes that the summer is a critical time for libraries to be fully available to the public. “I know we're going to have a lot of families looking for something to do with their kids,” she says. “And we're free. You don't have to pay to come in to see us, you don't have to buy anything to sit and read a book with your child or look for yourself. That's what we're here for.”