New edition of Philbrick Hall lends more space to Free Library

The main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia will reopen the newly restored room housing its collection of popular fiction, music, and videos Thursday morning.

Philbrick Hall was closed for almost a year during the latest phase of a plan to re-imagine the historic library.

The first thing you notice on entering Philbrick Hall is light. Several south-facing windows, which had been blocked by high shelving and office walls, now provide clear views of the Parkway. Daylight bathes the rediscovered marble floor (it was covered by carpeting) and the original, 1927 molded-plaster ceiling.

“The biggest change is the ceiling,” said Dena Heilik, head of the Philbrick Popular Library, who has been working in the room for six years. “I come in, and even if it’s been a crappy day, I’ll look up and say, ‘Oh! That’s so gorgeous!’ “

The $3 million restoration also carved out 2500 square feet of newly accessible space. Staff office spaces were eliminated and a mezzanine with closed stacks has been opened for public browsing.

The library is after even more space in the next phase of its renovation, an ambitious effort to disassemble whole floors of closed stacks and replace them with compact shelving, which should free up another 8500 square feet.

“When we began this project, we did a study of how much space is accessible,” said Siobahn Reardon, Free Library director. “Only 34 percent of a 300,000 square foot building is accessible to the public. By the time we finish, we hope to have 70 percent of the building open to the public.”

It’s more than a rehab job. The renovation plans reflect a philosophical change in the way the library handles its collection. Instead of having books readily available at your fingertips (in the parlance of librarianship: “Just in case”), much of the collection will be kept in storage where it will be available on request (“Just in time”).

Many of the grand rooms of the historic building were designed to be reading rooms, but Reardon now describes them as “shantytowns,” with staff desks and haphazard shelving cluttering the floor space.

Common cause

With compact shelving technology, the library will able to retrieve books from a much more dense storage system, freeing up space in those reading rooms and clearing out an entire floor of closed stacks.

The plan for that newly available floor space is a public area called The Common, with computers, meeting spaces, and creative tools, but no books.

“The current idea for the Common is that it will be bookless,” said Reardon. “You have the rest of the building to get the material you need to help you think about you, your education, your business. The whole idea of a common is the creative energy you are sharing. That’s why is called a Common.”

That next phase of renovation will cost an estimated $39 million. The plan also includes overhauling the fourth floor, which still has a kitchen from the days when the library operated a cafeteria. That kitchen, bolstered by the Julie Dannenbaum Culinary Arts Collection, will be the centerpiece for cooking classes and presentations.

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