Philadelphia libraries underused, Pew report finds

    Philadelphia has more library branches per capita than many other major American cities, but it uses them less than most.

    This finding was released Wednesday in a Pew report comparing Philadelphia’s libraries with those in 14 other urban areas.

    To gather the usage statistics, Pew telephoned 1,600 city residents. About half said that they hadn’t used the library system at all in 12 months. One third, though, claimed to visit at least once a month.

    Larry Eichel, project manager of the Philadelphia Research Initiative, pointed to a few of the reasons for Philadelphia’s lackluster usage. 

    “The more educated you are, the more likely you are to use a library, and Philadelphia ranks low compared to the other cities in the percentage of adults with college degrees,” said Eichel.

    Of course, Eichel says, it’s hard for people to use the library when recession-related staffing cuts have forced branches to trim hours and often close unexpectedly at the last minute. The report found that, during the recession, the Free Library experienced larger funding cuts than many of its counterparts—losing 14 percent of its staff and 19 percent of its government funding.

    In the face of these cuts, Pew sees a few clear ways to increase visits and circulation. More city residents would utilize the library, Pew predicts, if it offered more weekend hours, more programs for children and teens, and a more modern revitalization of the central branch.

    Although Philadelphians visit and borrow from libraries less than many other cities, overall, library usage has actually increased recently. Specifically, residents visit the city’s branches more and more as a way to access the internet — increasing 80 percent in the last six years.

    On this note the study found that — as web browsing has become increasingly necessary for both job search and school work — the library’s computers have attracted a higher percentage of low-income residents who lack access to this equipment at home.

    Despite this need, the Free Library ranks 11th out of the 15 systems in the number of public-access computers per capita.

    In fiscal 2011, the city spent about $44 million on the Free Library — 1.2 percent of its budget. That averages out to about $43 per city resident, an amount slightly below average for the communities studied.

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