The William Penn Foundation has announced a $25 million gift to the Free Library of Philadelphia in support of renovations and upgrades to the library’s historic Central Branch building and five other branches.
The largest gift ever awarded by the foundation aims to transform the library system into a vibrant twenty-first-century institution focused on the needs of the individual communities it serves. The largest portion of the gift, some $18 million, will fund the renovation of five neighborhood libraries, with the aim of making the facilities easier to access, physically as well as psychologically. The remaining $7 million will support the ongoing renovation of the interior of the Parkway Central Library, including the addition of forty thousand square feet, most of which will be used for a new small business and entrepreneurial center.
The gift was made as part of the library system's $40 million Building Inspiration campaign, the goal of which is to tailor individual branch libraries to meet the specific needs of their communities. In addition to the gift from the William Penn Foundation, the campaign has raised more than $12 million in public and private contributions, including $4.5 million from the City of Philadelphia, $2 million from the City Council, and $6 million from the state.
According to Free Library president and director Siobhan Reardon, people with low literacy skills often feel intimidated when they enter a library that is housed in an imposing structure. Through a series of community forums, the Free Library system determined that people would be more likely to use their local library if it were tailored more to meet their specific needs. For example, the Lillian Marrero Library in North Philadelphia needed more information for immigrants as well as early childhood literacy resources, while residents of neighborhoods served by the Tacony Library wanted a small-business center. Elsewhere, the Lovett Memorial branch teamed up with the Mt. Airy USA community development corporation to refurbish its building and the grounds of an adjacent park.
"We feel [the Philadelphia Library system] can serve as an example for institutions in Philadelphia and the nation," said Penn Foundation executive director Laura Sparks. "I think Philadelphia is leading the country in terms of trying to reimagine what libraries can do and how libraries can be responsive to community needs across the country."