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.

Plane tickets booked – Library appointments made

CILIP and the ESU have issued a press release on this year’s Travelling Librarian Award so it’s a good time to give an update on my tour plans – plenty has happened in the last few weeks.

I have now managed to arrange my dates and meetings with the libraries I plan to visit and my plane tickets are all booked. I have decided to fly from Bristol via Amsterdam to Boston. Although this makes the travel time slightly longer it is far more convenient for me than flying from Heathrow and was significantly cheaper.

I will be arriving in Boston on the evening of Saturday 19th September, this will give me a day to look around and then I will be visiting the Central Library on Monday 21st September where my contact is Michael Colford, Director of  Library Services. The Central Library in Copley Square has been undergoing a major renovation project which includes a new teen area called Teen Central  – here’s a taster from The Library as Incubator Project and the Library Journal

From Boston I will be travelling by Megabus (bargain $5 ticket) to Hartford. Hartford Public Library is one of the LTC cohort. My contact here is Matt Poland CEO of Hartford Public Library. He has recently announced that he will be leaving at the end of the year but hopefully not before September. Here is Matt talking about some of the library’s community engagement projects.

Joining me in Hartford will be Erica Freudenberger, Library Director at Red Hook Public Library which is also one of the LTC cohort. From Hartford I will travel with Erica to Red Hook and the Hudson Valley. Erica has very kindly offered to put me up for a few days at her house in Catskill, she tells me that it is a perfect time to visit the Hudson Valley as it will be the fall, the leaves will be changing making it incredibly spectacular. Red Hook Public Library has been given five star status by the Library Journal and was also named as the first finalist for the 2015 Best Small Library in America Award, given by Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can read more about this amazing small library and their engagement projects here. Erica is also arranging for me to give a talk to the Mid-Hudson Library System of 66 member libraries. It will be exciting to share information about our own library service, volunteers, community and outreach projects with colleagues overseas. While I am in the Hudson Valley I hope to look round some other local libraries as well.

From The Hudson Valley I will travel by train to New York. On 28th September I will be meeting up with Michelle Misner, Acting Director at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the main branch library for New York Public Library. Michelle has arranged for me to meet with Carolyn Broomhead (Research Community Manager), Maura Muller (Volunteer Manager) and Susan Rabbiner (Assistant Director of Exhibitions), she has also put aside some time to give me a tour of the building to see their work in action. On 29th September I will be visiting the Bronx Library Center and meeting Chief Librarian Michael Alvarez. Whilst in New York I also hope to drop in on the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library and the Mid-Manhattan Library.

The next part of the tour takes me to Philadelphia. My contact at the Free Library of Philadelphia is Donald Root who is Chief of Central Public Services Division. The Free Library is undergoing a transformational initiative called Building Inspiration: 21st Century LibrariesNew areas include Central Senior Services designed to serve Philadelphia’s growing population of older people.

From Philadelphia I will travel by train to Washington DC. I will be meeting Kim Zablud, Assistant Director of Public Services at DC Public Library. We will be touring round Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (Central Library), I’m particularly interested to see the new “Labs” and Kim has also arranged for me to visit some of the branch libraries. I have a weekend in Washington so hope to make some time for some tourist activities and also take a public tour of the Library of Congress – can’t really go all the way there and not do that!

The last leg of the study tour will see me flying to Chattanooga on 6th October. There are lots of exciting things happening at Chattanooga Public Library. There’s The 4th Floor, Camp Etsynooga and Makeanooga for starters. Maker spaces, community collaboration, knowledge sharing and the sharing economy have become the order of the day at the Downtown Library.  I hope to spend some time with Executive Director Corinne Hill, Library Journal’s 2014 Librarian of the Year who has been re-inventing the public library. My contact is Mary Barnett, Public Relations Coordinator and 4th Floor Ops, Mary is also making arrangements for me to meet with community partners and key staff during my visit.

The next step is to arrange accommodation. As most of the libraries I’m visiting are in city centre locations the nearby hotels are quite pricey for a long trip. Wherever possible I’m going to look for AirBnB, this will give me a great opportunity to stay with people and find out more about local areas.