With the Lovett Memorial Library in Mt. Airy temporarily closed, advocates for the nearby Wadsworth branch think now would be a good time for the administration to give its library equal funding.
It can start by kicking in enough money to replace the library’s chairs, according to a new friends group for the branch.
“They’re unraveling,” said Amelia Belardo-Cox, who heads the new Wadsworth Friends. “I don’t know if the Chestnut Hill Library has these kinds of chairs, or if they would allow their kids to sit in these kinds of chairs.”
Unraveling is a good word for it. On many of the Wadsworth chairs, the cloth upholstery has worn away to expose chair guts.
It’s just one reason branch advocates think their library, admittedly one of the smallest of the city’s 49 neighborhood branches, has been getting the short end of the stick for a while now. Not only was Wadsworth one of the branches slated for closure in 2008, but even now, after local organizing helped to keep it open, many believe the library still doesn’t get it’s fair share compared to Lovett and Chestnut Hill, which are both located in wealthier neighborhoods.
Unraveling staff shortages
Wadsworth Librarian Juanita Vega DeJoseph says her budget only allows for just one librarian – her – and the minimum required support staff, no children’s librarian or reference librarian, like you would find at Lovett and Chestnut Hill.
That means thin margins and limited services. So on hard days, like last week’s snowstorm, the library didn’t open Monday because some staff members were snowed in.
Meanwhile the staff of the Lovett branch has been temporarily reassigned during its closure to nearly every other Northwest library except Wadsworth. And of the 12 current staff vacancies across all the 49 neighborhood branches city wide, Wadsworth accounts for at least two by Vega DeJoseph’s count.
Joe Benford, head of the neighborhood branches knows all this, but he says times are tough everywhere. “We also have staff shortages in those other branches where the [Lovett] staff went.”
Chestnut Hill doesn’t have the same staffing problems that Wadsworth does. But if it now seems over-staffed with Lovett personnel there’s a good reason for that too, according to Benford. “We had to send extra staff to Chestnut Hill because that’s where the Lovett patrons go.”
To Wadsworth advocates this is the kind of thinking that has created a habit of underfunding at the branch, which is located about as far from Lovett as is the Chestnut Hill branch (at the corner of Wadsworth and Michener avenues) – with easier parking. But instead of taking opportunities to bring Wadsworth up to par with other branches, they feel, their library routinely gets skipped.
The trouble goes all the way down to the root of branch funding priorities, advocates feel. They think the measures that determine which branches get how much money – circulation and turnstile numbers – are fundamentally flawed.
“There is such a cycle,” said Belardo-Cox. “There’s not much of a collection therefore the circulation is down. The circulation is down, the budget is less, therefore there’s not much of a collection.”
Sandra Horrocks, VP of external affairs for the Free Library, thinks the Wadsworth Friends have got it all wrong.
“We are stretched very, very thin,” she said. “To say that we’re penalizing different branches is just not true.”
Horrocks said that even with the staffing shortage at Wadsworth the branch still gets about the same in funding totals as all the other branches. She declined to share the actual budget numbers for Chestnut Hill, Lovett and Wadsworth.
Horrocks also said turnstile and circulation counts were not factors in calculating branch budgets, but she declined to explain just what the main budgeting factors are.
This kind of opaqueness is part of the problem, the Wadsworth advocates say. Even as the head of her branch, Vega DeJoseph said the budgeting process at the branch level is difficult to understand.
“There’s so much that’s out of our hands,” she said. “It’s hard to really trace the money… usage, usage, usage. That general term of usage, I think that dictates budget.”
Serving up an experience
Still, Wadsworth pushes on. Though it has no budget for such things, Vega DeJoseph and the friends group are working to establish a local writers’ niche at the branch.
The library recently held a book talk with Mt. Airy author Lori Tharps, who just published her third book. Tharps said she baked cookies for the event because there was no money for food, but in the end, it was better than many talks she’s done at large bookstores.
“The room was full, there was at least twenty people, and two book groups,” Tharps said.
Tharps, who is at the Lovett or Chestnut Hill branches at least twice a week but rarely makes it to Wadsworth, was surprised by what the smaller branch had to cope with compared to the other two.
“I know every library is hurting but those libraries still have their staff, they still have their children’s librarians,” she said. “[Vega DeJoseph] is still providing all these wonderful experiences at the library.”
Another of those experiences was last week’s Kwanzaa celebration organized by Wadsworth Friends member Andrea Edmonds.
Edmonds said a critical part of Kwanzaa is to bring young people in on the message of African American cultural pride and heritage. She saw the library as the perfect place to do it.
Vega DeJoseph is working toward a similar goal. On the day of the Kwanzaa celebration she set out books about the holiday and about African American history where people, especially children, couldn’t miss them.
She called it completing the circle. When a young person leaves that event and picks up one of those books, she knows the library has done its job to link experience and learning together.
And she thinks it’s part of her job to pressure the administration to make it easier for the Wadsworth branch to keep that link alive.
Number one on her list of priorities: hiring a children’s librarian.
“It is by far the most important job in the library,” she said.
Joe Benford said the hiring process is underway, but as with most city actions, it takes time.