These are some of the points made in a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released Wednesday, that places the tasks facing the Free Library in the context of public libraries in 14 other cities.
The trials of Philadelphia's library system in recent years have been well-documented in the news media and, internally, by library leaders. But "The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future" may give the system critical outside validation as it gathers support for renovation and expansion plans.
A recurring theme in the report - and in the library's strategic plan - is how services expected by library patrons are transforming the institution from a "temple of knowledge" to a community center for public events and a resource for seekers of jobs and government services.
Highlighted in the report as well is the library's "shadow mandate" role of support to public agencies. One example: When an after-school program lost half its Department of Human Services funding last fall, the Free Library Foundation stepped in with the money to save it.
"I think the work they did relative to raising awareness of what a public library does is phenomenal," said Siobhan A. Reardon, the Free Library's president and director. "For us, it really does tie in brilliantly to our strategic plan. I just kept on seeing connections between what we've been thinking about and what we need to pay attention to."
The library's collections are wide and deep, and in some areas - music and rare books - of sufficient specialization to draw scholars worldwide. But it was visitors drawn to Internet access at the libraries, as well as public events such as the popular authors' series, that made the Free Library's central library in 2010 one of the most-visited cultural institutions on the Parkway: 957,874 visitors, about 17 percent of the visitorship to the entire Free Library system of 54 branches.
Still, attendance could be better. "Philadelphians use their libraries less than their counterparts in most of the 14 other urban communities studied," the report found.
Too few computers to meet demand may be a factor. But the study suggests that Philadelphians would be using libraries more if they could: Branch closings due to budget cuts have depressed attendance numbers, and irregular hours, particularly on weekends, are limiting use.
"Work rules in Philadelphia require that four library personnel, including a security guard, be present to open a branch," the report states. "Few of the other systems we studied have minimum staff requirements. . . ."
The report, developed by Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative in consultation with library board and staff, dovetails with several imminent Free Library agenda items.
Pew illustrates lively facilities at other libraries catering to teens; the Free Library has recently opened such a space and has further plans in its expansion. Pew touts a renovation in Pittsburgh whose lobby welcomes visitors with couches and a café; Philadelphia has plans to soon make its lobby hospitable (with more ambitious renovations down the road).
The study blames reduced funding for the library, leading to deferred maintenance and a longer wait for books, as a factor that diminishes its appeal.
The Pew report - which documents demographics of library users as well as current funding sources - suggests a look at the library's "strange sort of hybrid" governance structure.
The library is run by both the City of Philadelphia and a nonprofit fund-raising entity, the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation. The report acknowledges that the "arrangement has its pluses and minuses."
One area in which the Free Library compares favorably to counterparts in the study is attendance for special programs. Storytelling events for children, the speaker series, and resumé assistance for job-seekers drew 639,049 patrons, exceeding the average of other systems studied nearly 50 percent.
Contact Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. Read his blog
In Sunday's Inquirer: A closer look at the status of the Free Library of Philadelphia's plans for transformation and expansion.