Problems at the Free Library boil over

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Central Branch of Philadelphia Free Public Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Central Branch of Philadelphia Free Public Library. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A few weeks ago, Black employees at the Free Library of Philadelphia pointed to what they called racism in the workplace, and demanded change. Their letter was one of two documents complaining about conditions at the library.  The other was a petition from a group of unionized employees, expressing “no confidence” in library leadership. The complaints made it to prominent authors, including Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead, who canceled speaking engagements at the library.

Why did current events reveal deep mistrust at the Free Library of Philadelphia? TyLisa Johnson of  Public Source and WHYY’s Miles Bryan break down the history of the complaints and how the petitions are playing out.


Hear the whole story on The Why

 Interview highlights

TyLisa Johnson on when she first heard about the complaints

Around early 2019,  I started hearing from some sources that there was a survey that was posted on an internal forum, asking staffers if they’d experienced or observed bias or discrimination at the library. And a few hours later, at the request of Library President Siobhan Reardon, it was taken down.

After they took it down, there was internal outrage. The union got involved, and in March of 2019, the survey was reposted. This time, it received nearly double the responses. It was more than 100.

On the nature of the complaints

One that really sticks out is there was a white female supervisor who told someone that she wished that she were black and gay because she thought that it would make her more promotable. There were other comments about people not taking conversations about race seriously, or blowing them off. Instances of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. And there were just an array of incidents: transphobia issues and queerphobic issues and a lot of these different things.

I learned that there are court records that show three complaints filed against the library. Each of them allege discrimination and harassment, but those were related to gender or sexual orientation. Still, those cases acknowledged a failure to stop harassment by management. And in some cases, management retaliated instead.  

Miles Bryan on the contents of the union employee petition

There was a petition expressing a vote of no confidence in library president and director Siobhan Reardon and her team. And that was put together by the union that many of the library workers are part of. And that had kind of a wide-ranging set of concerns. It noted a lack of a COVID- 19 safety plan and concerns about adequate PPE, and folks feeling like they weren’t they weren’t in a safe position to return to library branches. It noted solidarity with their Black colleagues and demanded that their Black colleagues demands for addressing racism and inequity be dealt with.

On why things have reached their boiling point now 

I talked to one worker, Peter Santa Maria. He’s a union steward and he’s been at the library for about a decade. And he said things had been they had been bad before the pandemic. But the pandemic has really exacerbated a lot of the frustrations he’s had for years. He said communication from the administration has been pretty much nonexistent and that they weren’t going to be able to continue to function with the administration as it is. 

But also something that I’ve been thinking about, you know, reporting on this is that the reactions folks are having in this debate over the future of the library to me at least partially echo what we’re seeing more broadly, where people are demanding change from from institutions and powerful people and sort of are no longer willing to to wait or play by the rules set by those in power.

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