More than just a way to borrow books

Posted: January 13, 2013

Sheldon Bonovitz

is a board member of the Free Library of Philadelphia

If a resident of Philadelphia were asked what services the Free Library provides, the likely answer would be, "Books and other reading materials." That's true, in part. But the Free Library does so much more.

In fact, one can say the Free Library of Philadelphia has morphed into a community service organization, with 54 locations throughout the city and a staff that speaks more than 30 languages.

Let's look at the city's demographics. More than 50 percent of working-age Philadelphians (550,000) do not have the necessary skills to fill out a job application. Twenty-five percent of Philadelphians do not have a high school diploma, and 46 percent are without Internet access at home. Two-thirds of the city's students cannot read proficiently at the end of fourth grade.

The Free Library is stepping up and meeting the critical needs of Philadelphians, providing services that residents can't get elsewhere. Here are just a few examples:

About 60,000 students participate in the library's literacy enrichment after-school program (LEAP), offered at all 54 branches.

About 50,000 children participate each year in the library's summer reading program.

The library is a vital provider of health information, with a recent Pew study showing that 34 percent of library computer users are seeking health information.

The library offers 1,000 free public access computers, with staff assistance to help residents do their homework, submit job applications, and seek health information.

Neighborhood libraries have become hubs of the community, stepping into the breach and providing a free and open environment for meetings and for vital help. And they can do more, but only with additional funding. Programs on the drawing board include revitalizing neighborhood libraries, both buildings and programs; community needs, such as literacy programs, job-search help, and services for seniors; and preparing preschoolers to learn with laptops, e-readers, and other support.

As the library has done more, sources of funding have declined. In recent years, public funding has declined by $13 million, resulting in a reduction in business hours. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet when it comes to funding, but the library will continue to do its part by reaching out to the private sector to help fill the void. As we do so, utmost in our minds will be the crucial job the library does in helping Philadelphians.

E-mail Sheldon Bonovitz at

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