Free Library scales back expansion plans

For years, visitors to the Free Library of Philadelphia on Race Street have seen a model of what the future building will look like with a huge glass wall over a new entrance on 20th Street, and a new secondary building to the north. The library has been trying to raise $175 million to accomplish that vision.

Scaffolding is now in place as the 84-year-old building is being prepped for that restoration and expansion work. But the plans have shrunk.

The secondary building will be less than half the size originally proposed, and there will be no grand entrance on 20th Street. Most of those funds will be put into modernizing the infrastructure of the existing building.

During its years as a library, the classic Beaux Arts building was not upgraded wisely. Shelving and computer systems that were installed willy-nilly have resulted in much wasted space.

“We put 80 to 90 computers in long corridors, took out the catalog, put the computers in the space where you had the catalogs,” said Siobhan Reardon, who became library director in 2008. “People are computing in the middle of a hallway, a completely inappropriate space. We just put the technology in any open space that we could.”

Reardon said overhauling shelving with modern technology will free up enough space for an additional half-million books, but they would be available by request only, not by browsing.

Even with truncated expansion plans, the library is maintaining its original fundraising goal of about $175 million.

“It’s not cheap to redo a building that’s 80 years old that’s never had its mechanical systems upgraded,” said Reardon. “The building basically has not been touched in 80 years, and it needs 80 years of love.”

Reardon says the shift represents a change in the philosophy of library storage, from “just in time” to “just in case”–from having materials at one’s fingertips at any moment, to a situation where more material is available but the patron might have to wait for staff to retrieve it.

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