Free Library of Philadelphia – Doing Things Differently

I spent two days at the Free Library of Philadelphia Central Library with a full schedule arranged by Donald Root, Chief of Central Public Services, and his assistant Stephanie. It was great to meet with so many teams and also to meet with Free Library President, Siobhan Reardon, Librarian of the Year 2015.

I will cover my time at the Free Library in more detail in my final report but here I will concentrate on some of the ways they are doing things differently.



The cafe is run by a non-profit organisation which supports the homeless. It offers work skills to formerly homeless people in customer service and catering, encouraging them to progress into employment. The library works in partnership with the cafe and makes no charge for it to operate from the building.


Business Library

The Central Library is a large historic 1927 building which is due to undergo a major expansion project. They hope to build a new area underground, at the back of the building, which will house the children’s department and an auditorium. Underneath the current building are six floors of stacks. All the stock that was kept in the stacks has been moved offsite to a facility 3.5 miles away and this area will be redeveloped to make a new Business, Research and Innovation Center (BRIC), a Commons and a teen area. The building work is due to start in January 2016.

Charles Smith introduced me to his business team and explained how BRIC will consolidate the many current business areas of the library into one modern space. It will include the Workplace which is an area for jobseekers to find support with CVs, job applications and interview techniques. Another section will be the Regional Foundation Center which supports all levels of nonprofit organisations through research, databases, resources, programming and referrals. The new centre will also provide areas for business mentors, legal advisors and financial advisors to support small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The Business Library partners extensively with the Philadelphia business community to provide a wide range of free, regular, programming for businesses and entrepreneurs. Presentations and classes available include: branding, finance, technology, business plans, motivational speaking, women in business etc. These are very well attended with numbers ranging between 80 and 150, an additional benefit from the programming is that it offers great opportunities for networking.

The business department are also involved with health, they are currently exploring the possibility of having a library nurse to offer basic health assessments. For the last year two social workers, employed by the city, have worked from the library and support patrons in a variety of ways, especially the homeless, older people and those who may have mental health issues.


Literacy Enrichment After School Programme (LEAP)

Chris Caputo and her team met with me to give an overview of their children and teens educational programming.

Drop-in after school sessions are available at all 54 library branches. The sessions offer homework help but also extensive STEM programming to extend the learning that happens in school. 53 adult after school leaders and about 130 high school students are employed in the LEAP programme, the teens serving as role models for younger children and their peers. College students are employed to support teen after school programmes. The Free Library also buys into an online subscription provided by Brainfuse which offers homework help and online chat to a live tutor.

The library’s College Prep Program provides high school students with workshops and coaching to help them gain college places. The programme includes college fairs, application process, applying for financial aid and exam prep.

Words at Play

The Words at Play project is a community outreach programme for families with children aged 0-5 and focuses on increasing vocabulary through play. Children who are exposed to more words when they are young have a higher success rate when they start school, children in areas of high poverty are not exposed to as many words as their peers in wealthier areas. The library partners with the science museum, an art museum, the performing arts centre and the zoo and the project is funded by a large bank in the area. They target communities in North Philadelphia which are among the poorest in the United States. The project provides community events and play parties in libraries and community locations, the events may have live animals, music or performers but always include vocabulary building activities to help parents and children learn together.

Senior Services

The Senior Services area was the brainchild of President Siobhan Reardon. It is a relaxed area with large light windows, carpeting, comfortable armchairs, newspapers, magazines and books, giving senior citizens a more homely area. Additionally there is a computer area, some of the computers have assitive technology and senior patrons can use the computers for an extended time. There is also a private screened area where advice and one to one sessions are held. Dick Levinson, Senior Services Librarian, provides a wide range of programming for older people which includes computer skills, hobby talks, history lectures, learning new skills, healthy lifestyles and finance planning.


E-Gadget Helpdesk, TechMobile and Community Hotspots

The E-Gadget helpdesk has been running for over a year in the main foyer of the Central Library, it runs as a drop-in with two library staff, twice a week and they always have people waiting. Originally it was to help patrons use the ebook service but now they help with anything from using selfie sticks to setting up apps on tablets.

The TechMobile is a custom built mobile computer lab, it is fitted out with eight laptops and seven tablets as well as being a WiFi hotspot. The vehicle attends community events, community organisations and groups and is staffed by a Digital Resource Specialist and a driver/assistant. One to one help is on offer as well as workshops.

Three Community Hot Spots are provided by the Free Library in high need areas, these are computer areas set up within community organisations. They are staffed by Digital Resource Specialists and are open access for all the community to use (no library card required) but workshops are also delivered on work skills, computer basics and social media. An additional hot spot is available at the airport for travellers.

Digital Resource Specialists are a new initiative, they are usually promoted from information assistants who are keen to work with technology. The aim is that there will be one Digital Resource Specialist based in each library branch and they will be the go-to person to provide computer or technology help at that library, they will also deliver technology programming.


Culinary Literacy Centre

The Culinary Literary Centre on the fourth floor of the Central Library is an innovative and inspirational new service from Siobhan Reardon and her team. It is the first of it’s kind in the United States. The centre houses a commercial kitchen, cameras and a large screen as well prep tables and seating. The premise behind it is to connect literacy and cooking. Reading, maths, measurements, conversions, sequencing, are all important parts of literacy and cooking. The centre looks at literacy in it’s widest forms including health literacy and consumer literacy, engaging with the immigrant population and residents with low literacy levels. Additionally the centre provides a wide range of community programming including demonstrations by local chefs, bakers, cook book author events, school visits and workshops, family cooking, preserving classes and cake decorating . Librarians Liz Fitzgerald and Suzanna Urminska have developed multiple literacies progammes with hands-on experiential learning, these have proved to be incredibly popular with the community and local schools. The programmes they offer are expanding and one of the most recent initiatives has been to make mobile kitchen boxes to enable culinary literacy outreach and programming in branch libraries. Each box includes an electric wok, a blender and a safe set of kitchen implements that adults and children can use, so while not every library can have an industrial kitchen they can all take part in some culinary literacy programming.


There is a great deal more innovation and community engagement happening at The Free Library of Philadelphia including developing neighbourhood library clusters and community councils, strategic initiatives, volunteering and working with friends groups in new ways – but I will save the rest for my report.


Red Hook – Small Library, Big Ideas!

Red Hook Public Library is situated in Red Hook Village, Dutchess County, New York State, the population of the village is under 2000, the library serves a population of approximately 4000 with out-lying areas. Red Hook Library is run by director Erica Freudenberger and a team of two full time staff, seven part time staff (between 10 and 20 hours) and five pages. Pages are teenage staff, aged 14 + who work 3-5 hours per week, after school, weekends and holidays, they earn the minimum wage. There are also 12-15 volunteers giving a few hours each, they usually help with shelving but may help run or lead activities.


This small library is based in an historic octagonal building, with limited space the team have found plenty of innovative ways to engage with their community. Red Hook Library has been nationally recognised for the work they have done, it has been designated a five star library by the Library Journal and was a finalist this year in the Best Small Library of America Award.

Although only just over 4000 square feet, there is space for a children’s library, a tween room, a teen area, adult library, study areas, three public computers and a children’s learning garden.


Red Hook is a municipal library which has a Board of Trustees. The Trustees act as governors of the library, dealing with finance and policies, they are appointed by the Mayor of the village. Erica reports to the trustees at the monthly board meetings. The library is funded by local taxes. The funding system means that residents vote in local elections for the amount they are prepared to spend on their library. This means that in order to secure appropriate funding it is imperative that the library demonstrates it’s value to the community.

Red Hook Board of Trustees meeting

Red Hook Board of Trustees meeting

As one of the Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) cohort Red Hook Library have been working hard on their community engagement activities, much of the programming is based on experiential learning. The amount of programming they achieve is truly impressive. On average they put on about 15 programmes per week. Usually the planning is done in 6-8 week cycles. Programmes include:

  • Romp and Stomp – pre-school
  • Toddler FUNdamentals – playing and developing fine motor skills
  • Petite Picasso – art for pre-schoolers
  • Story time – pre-school
  • Spinning yarns – knitters group
  • Libratory – STEM based maker sessions, after school
  • Crafternoon – for grade school children
  • Lego Club
  • Curators of the Lost Art – hands on art history and practice, after school grades 6-9
  • Minecraft
  • Two monthly book groups – adults afternoon and evening
  • Colour Club – adult colouring
  • Teen Tech Help – Saturdays, help with digital devices by pages and teen volunteers 10am-2pm
  • Farmers Market – Children’s craft activities and stories weekly at the village Farmer’s Market
  • Homeschool Discovery Zone – for homeschooled children and families
  • Learn conversational Italian – 8 week course for adults – beginner and intermediate classes
  • Learn Japanese for fun – introductory course for adults and high school students – volunteer led
  • Latin for teens – volunteer led
  • Shakespeare Discussion Group – monthly
  • Job Search Clinic- partnering with local career centre
  • Health Exchange Navigators – private sessions with navigators – partnership
  • After school sessions held at the High school library – currently web design and graphics – weekly partnering with school

In addition to these regular sessions there are many one-off adult evening events usually led by members of the community sharing their skills. These talks and workshops have included bee-keeping, gardening, brewing and maple tree tapping.

Hispanic Heritage Month organised by the library at the Farmers' Market

Hispanic Heritage Month organised by the library at the Farmers’ Market

Children's craft at the Farmer's Market

Children’s craft at the Farmer’s Market


Erica and the Mayor of Red Hook at the Farmer's Market

Erica and the Mayor of Red Hook at the Farmer’s Market

Erica and some of her team at Red Hook Farmers' Market. LtoR Dawn, Fiona, Erica and Jacob

Erica and some of her team at Red Hook Farmers’ Market.
LtoR Dawn, Fiona, Erica and Jacob

The work that Erica and her team do is inspiring, they work extensively with partners, including the nearby University, Bard College and the High School. There is a monthly meeting with village organisations and businesses “Red Hook Together” where there is an open dialogue and organisations share what they are doing, giving further opportunities for partnership work. Programmes are often held out of the library in community venues because of the limitations of space but this allows extensive outreach work, for all ages, and increases the visibility of the library and their work. Erica is constantly talking with her community and many of the events they deliver have been suggested by community members keen to share their skills.

Red Hook Library is thriving with over 150,000 visits and 11,000 attending programmed events in the last year as well as increased issues. Erica is convinced that the book issues will take care of themselves if you have people attending the programmed events. This library is highly valued by it’s community.

A final couple of points that may be useful for UK libraries when considering activities and events. At Red Hook and the other libraries that I have visited so far, there are no charges for any of the programmed events or courses, everything is offered for free.

The libraries are also open for longer hours, early evening is the busiest time. Red Hook is open 10am-7pm Monday – Friday and 10am-4pm on Saturdays. Many adult events are later in the evening after the library is closed. The staff work flexible shifts to accommodate out of hours programmes. Provision of library services outside the standard working day can only help engage the community with the library.

The Future is Programming!

After visiting Hartford I went home with Erica Freudenberger to her very beautiful house in Catskill. Erica had very kindly offered to put me up for a few days and introduce me to librarians in the Hudson Valley region as well as show me her own fascinating library at Red Hook – which will get a blog post all of it’s own.

On Thursday Erica took me along to the Mid Hudson Library System (MHLS) Future of Programming Workshop, in Ploughkeepsie.

I should start by explaining that library programming has a different context in the States, it means organising events and activities rather than something to do with computers. In the United States many public libraries have Programming Librarians with the responsibility of creating and organising all activities and events run in libraries.

The MHLS consists of 66 public libraries and It was great to be introduced to key library personnel from the area.

In the United States, much like in the UK, there is a downward trend in footfall and circulation. Programming, for all ages, is a growth area and is a way for libraries to further a core activity of facilitating knowledge creation. The workshop aimed to promote increasing community connections through programming.


The session was introduced by Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, MHLS Co-ordinator for Library Sustainability. Rebekkah explained the importance of focusing on community needs rather than a library’s needs and wants. Libraries need to help build communities by continually looking for new ways and ideas to meet ever changing community needs.

Janie Hermann

The first speaker was Janie Hermann, Public Programming Librarian at Princeton Public Library, New Jersey. Janie told us how adult programming had been minimal at Princeton, however programming for all ages has grown in recent years and the library now offers over 1,700 public programs per year. The programming team is cross-departmental with Janie being the full time lead but 14 other team members each participating for a variety of hours to produce a wide range of events. She said that there had been a culture shift and there was now more emphasis on programming at Princeton Public Library than anything else.

Key tips Janie made were:

  • Just because something is free – you don’t have to offer it. Running events and activities is never free, staff time needs to be considered. Set goals and objectives for events.
  • Find a balance – what is too much and what is not enough? Princeton runs events 5 – 6 nights per week, this offers free entertainment to customers and residents.
  • Princeton sends out a weekly newsletter ‘ This Week in the Library’ at 7am every Monday. This enables people to set their calendars every week,
  • Think thematically, programming in quarters so people can take part in a series of events
  • Check that the collection can back up and support the programme.
  • Work with the collection development librarians, do an author’s books circulate in your libraries?
  • Do some blue sky thinking with your team – nothing is too outrageous, be adventurous, it doesn’t mean that every suggestion has to run.
  • Play Pause Rewind Delete – weed your programmes just like a collection. Look at partnership programmes annually, get rid of what’s not working to make way for the new.
  • You have to be flexible and spontaneous.
  • Take ideas from the community – listen to your community.
  • You need to have good PR, good staffing and a programming budget.

Some of the successful programmes put on by the Princeton team include:

  • Election Night at the Library – big screen
  • World Cup football – big screen
  • Rubik’s Cube competition
  • Royal Wedding guests – dressing up and big screen
  • Opera at Princeton – partnership with University
  • Environmental Film Festival – invite entries, screen films
  • Student Film and Video Festival – children to 24years
  • How to  – skills sharing festival
  • Civic Hackathon – designing apps for the town

Erinn Batykefer

The second speaker was Erin Batykefer, co-founder of The Library as Incubator Project and Programming Librarian at New Canaan Library. Erinn suggested that we need to re-frame what we do in the library, to connect people to information. The purpose of libraries is to exchange information and books are not the only way to do this. The reference section is no longer relevant we now have more up to date information on the Internet but we should also recognise that sometimes information is held in people. Libraries should see the people we serve as collaborators in the information exchange.

Erinn’s view is that programming should be treated as collection development. The events calendar needs to be representative of the community. Libraries should respond to suggestions from the community and provide events in a range of formats. Ideally thematic suites of programmes should be created so people have the opportunity to join at multiple points.

Erinn’s key areas to consider when organising a programme calendar are: Subject, Format and Diversity. Examples at Canaan Library include:

  • Skill Shares – e.g. knitting and crocheting, intergenerational, peer to peer learning, the library acting as facilitator.
  • Workshops – e.g. paper making workshop
  • Classes – e.g. IT, WordPress bootcamp followed up by monthly blogging get together.
  • Lectures – e.g. Birds of Prey, Bee Keeping
  • Author talks – partnering with schools and colleges

Erinn’s tip for ensuring diversity in the programming schedule is to ‘shelve’ programmes in Dewey. She does this simply by putting programmes under subject headings and colour coding the subjects. If the programme calendar is in a range of colours, diversity should be achieved.

Hudson Valley Libraries – early adopters, investing staff time in programming

The final session looked at three MHLS libraries that successfully use extensive programming as part of their core service.

Erica Freudenberger – Director of Red Hook Public Library

Patti Haar – Director of Patterson Library

Sue Ray – Director of Catskill Public Library

Some of the great suggestions and ideas shared by these librarians were:

  • Use your community’s skills – library as a facilitator
  • People like to be asked to share their skills
  • Listen to your community and do it for them
  • Serve the entire community not just those who use the library
  • Use community spaces for events – get out of the library, leave the building and meet people
  • Collaborate – run programmes with school librarians or local groups
  • take story times out of the library – visit local businesses, learn about baking, police, fire services
  • Successful programming takes commitment, funding, time and food – always serve some food
  • Programming is about experiential learning
  • The library is a venue facilitating knowledge creation
  • It will take time to build a public following
  • Don’t charge for anything
  • CANI – constant and neverending improvement
  • Hire the right people with shared vision and values
  • Proper outreach – there is no limit!
L to R Erinn Batykefer, Janie Hermann, Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, Frances Tout.

L to R Erinn Batykefer, Janie Hermann, Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, Frances Tout.