Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation surpasses fundraising goal; Northwest libraries continue to fill gaps

The Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation announced this week that a new citywide fundraising effort was nearly ten times more successful than expected.

Melissa Greenberg, vice president for development at the FLPF, said that $52,000 was raised from an email-based fundraising campaign last month, corresponding with the conclusion of the fiscal year 2012 on June 30.

“It was so, so wonderful,” said Greenberg of the campaign, which was originally projected to raise $6,000 for the FLPF, a nonprofit which serves as a private funding source for the Free Library system.

“It was our first time doing this,” she said of June’s appeal. “It says that there’s great opportunity for us.”

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What will the money be used for? 

The monies raised in June will go toward the FLFP’s 2012 fundraising goal of $6.2 million, of which $1.35 million is unrestricted funding destined for the FLFP’s Annual Fund. Individual contributions comprise 90-percent of the fund, according to Greenberg.

The Annual Fund is used to support various initiatives of the Free Library not funded by city or state money, such as the after-school LEAP program which serves 70,000 students, the summer reading program which serves 60,000 students, and the Author Events series.

“The city pays for basic operations,” said Greenberg. “Everything else is funded through the foundation with private money.”

Both city and state funding are flat this year, with little adjustment in government contributions. Overall, the library has seen a 19-percent decrease in public funding in the last five years.

Greenberg said that at present, the City of Philadelphia contributes $33.8 million, which goes to employees’ salaries, maintenance, and other operations. She noted that private money cannot be used to support staffing, as the jobs are civil service positions.

Currently, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contributes $8.1 million to the library’s budget, which also supports the Library for the Blind.

“We feel we’ve been very nimble,” said Greenberg, in regard to public funding. “Our goal is to keep the libraries open as much as possible.”

Climate of NW Philly facilities 

While fundraising dollars can go into a general fund, supporters can request that their contribution goes into a “Grass Roots fund” associated with each library. Greenberg said that financial data is still being compiled due to the recent closing of the books for fiscal year 2012, and is not yet available.

Jeff Bullard, Northwest area coordinator for the Free Library, spoke to the operational climate and impact of libraries in the Northwest.

While noting that Northwest branches, along with all 54 branches across the city, continue to feel the impacts of earlier budget cuts, Bullard said that library programming is beginning to return to pre-2008 levels.

This programming, he noted, is of special pride to Northwest libraries, which have a tradition in the Free Library system of piloting programming, in addition to retaining older and more seasoned staff.

While two Northwest libraries reside within stable and affluent communities – Bullard observed that the Falls of Schuylkill branch in East Falls and the Chestnut Hill Library receive significant funding from private groups. Others, like the West Oak Lane branch, continue to redefine themselves, he added.

Serving a need in the immigrant community 

Noting the expansion of an immigrant community in West Oak Lane, Bullard said the Free Library is focused on reaching out to “New Americans.”

“It’s historically true, both here and across the nation, that immigrants come to libraries relatively early in their experience,” he said.

Despite their public funding, Bullard said libraries don’t have the image of government intrusion, and are often seen as both a free resource and open space by those in the process of assimilation.

To assist in this, libraries are offering ESL classes and “casual conversation tables,” wherein residents can drop in to practice their English skills.

In addition, libraries serve as a means of providing information about communities.

“If a library is worth its salt,” said Bullard, “it knows what’s going on in the neighborhood.”

Embracing technology platforms 

Asked to speak about new initiatives, Bullard indicated that technology will be one of the growth centers for the Free Library.

“We can never have enough,” he said.

To this end, the library is upgrading systems and installing new computers in various branches over the next six months. Two libraries in the Northwest – Joseph Coleman Regional in Germantown and West Oak Lane – currently have larger computer labs that engage teachers to assist with job searches and applications.

While technology offerings continue to expand, “bricks and mortar” projects are ongoing, such as improvements to the Roxborough Library.

Earlier this year, the office of 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. secured $30,000 in capital funding for the Ridge Avenue library for exterior improvements to the library.

Jose Casalina, vice president of Friends of the Roxborough Library, said that the money was turned over to the city for eventual distribution back to Roxborough.

Pending the release of the funds, which he expects in mid-July, his organization will secure quotes for new signage, which he expects to cost approximately $10,000. The balance in funds will be used to remove concrete and install landscaping, softening the building’s frontage and keeping it more in line with developments already occurring in the Roxborough Business District.

Looking ahead 

While the books are still being balanced, Greenberg said she is “incredibly optimistic” about the FLPF’s financial prospects for the coming year.

“We will continue to see support and growth as we continue our fundraising,” she said.

Bullard, while similarly optimistic at the future of libraries in Philadelphia, observed a paradox.

“It’s ironic,” he said, “that as we experience reduced funding, our value is going up and up and up.”

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