Karen Heller: How to shelve library plan?

"We have 6,900 libraries for sighted people in the commonwealth. Why can't we have two full-service libraries for people who are blind or disabled?" asks Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer, file
"We have 6,900 libraries for sighted people in the commonwealth. Why can't we have two full-service libraries for people who are blind or disabled?" asks Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer, file
Posted: May 07, 2012

The Philadelphia Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the nation's oldest book collection serving the visually impaired and one of only two in the commonwealth, is slated to be dramatically diminished this week, as services and the collection are slashed.

The plan calls for moving most reading materials to the smaller, less-used Pittsburgh branch; foolishly dumping half a million recorded cassettes; and halving the caring, veteran staff that helps disabled patrons in 29 counties.

The merger makes absolutely no sense and will not save the commonwealth a cent, while providing slower, less efficient service to an already underserved population. Indeed, critics believe the merger will cost more money in unanticipated operating costs.

After writing about the abysmal plan Wednesday, I was flooded with calls and e-mails from readers asking how they could help.

Often in the past, I could suggest a government official or legislator with some clout who might listen to their concerns.

Now, I'm at an utter loss, as are the library's advocates.

"We have 6,900 libraries for sighted people in the commonwealth. Why can't we have two full-service libraries for people who are blind or disabled?" asks Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library, which manages the branch at Ninth and Walnut. "This is not a policy issue or budget issue."

Nor does it have anything to do with politics or regional infighting.

The consolidation is based on a massively flawed 2010 independent study commissioned under the Rendell administration, conducted by someone with no experience in libraries or services for the blind, and approved by a now-retired state bureaucrat.

"We've been absolutely stonewalled on this issue," says Robert Heim, chairman of the Free Library's board of trustees who, with Reardon, has lobbied tirelessly on behalf of the branch. "All we're asking is for the state to halt the merger and have a reassessment of the plan."

Reardon and Heim met with State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, who oversees libraries. Mayor Nutter has fought repeatedly against consolidation. There have been many talks with leading Republican state legislators and staff and with Democrats in Washington. Each member of the legislature has been contacted. Twice.

And though there isn't really an opposing side, administrators in Harrisburg haven't budged. Last month, library patrons and champions had a meeting with state library official Alice Lubrecht, which multiple participants called "appalling." Heim says, "We asked if she was going to take back our concerns and she told us: 'There's no point. It's a done deal.' "

Dan Simpson, a leader in the blind community and a devoted library patron for half a century, says: "This has been so frustrating as a citizen. You believe you have a voice in government. You raise serious questions and pretty significant arguments against the plan, and they don't listen. It's exasperating. No wonder people are cynical."

The library fight is a microcosm of what's happening in Harrisburg, especially for regional residents. Enormous decisions are made by a sheltered state bureaucracy, operating in a fortress of entitlement and power of their own design. If you're lucky, officials may take a meeting, but they don't appear to be listening. In the library's case, they're not changing their minds on a flawed decision that affects our most vulnerable citizens yet won't save money, Harrisburg's primary operating principle.

In recent years, the region has lost its most powerful advocates, however flawed: Vince Fumo, John Perzel, Dwight Evans (there but without clout), and, most notably, Ed Rendell and his advisers.

People protest almost every day the legislature is in session, though those days were few in April: three in the Senate, four in the House. An army plans to descend Monday opposing anti-immigration legislation and cuts to general assistance for the poor. Good luck to them all.

"The blind and visually impaired population happens to be growing in Southeastern Pennsylvania, with the return of veterans and people growing older. This service needs to be enhanced, not pulled back," Reardon says.

Heim adds: "I don't intend to let this issue go. It is too important to people who just shouldn't have to be disadvantaged by the government."

Who knows how to halt the dismantling of the nation's oldest library for the blind? But writing Secretary Tomalis and Gov. Corbett couldn't hurt.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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