I’m a library fan. I have a collection of library cards from every place I’ve lived. My college work study job was in the library. I do my best work in Chester’s J. Lewis Crozer public library. And then there’s the messy Philadelphia Free Library system.

The Philadelphia Free Library Director resigned this week. She had no library experience coming into the job but managed to stay on board for 12-years. In recent years the black and hispanic workers have brought up workplace issues which were aired out in city council budget meetings. The complaints have been mostly ignored for some time but the pressure finally got too much for the director and she took the hint and packed her bags. 

Not to be outdone, at least five members of the board of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, a separate nonprofit that raises money for the library, have resigned in response and there’s a few more members thinking about leaving. Mayor Kenny recognizes what this means to the bottom line finances of the library when he states…

“it is unfortunate to lose supporters at this point because of constrained governmental resources. But all supporters, must be bought into a future library that stands for racial equity.”

The Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation is made up of rich folks with old money who contribute, and get their friends to contribute, to the library. Sadly, without their money, you can bet the first libraries to close when things open up again will be the ones in black and brown communities. 

The next head to roll from the library’s Board of Trustees will probably be Pamela Dembe. She’s the one who responded to a question from Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson about the lack of diversity on the foundation board, by saying…

…members are expected to make financial contributions…Dembe implied there weren’t enough wealthy Black people who would serve. The foundation board is less diverse, and to some extent its efforts to expand are a bit hampered by the fact that people who join that board are expected to make a very significant financial commitment.

Councilman Johnson responded with, “I know rich Black people, I know Asians, too, and Puerto Ricans.” “Give me their names,” Dembe said. “I’m not saying they’re not there, but because there are fewer of them, there are more demands on them.”

There certainly are rich Black, Asian, and Puerto Ricans in and around Philly. I’d have to agree with Dembe’s statement that there are less of them than rich whites with old money and the demands on the minority-rich are great. This is the time to see if any of them will step up and fill the vacancies on the Foundation board and put their money into the library system. If they’ve been denied seats on the board in the past, I don’t think they’ll have that problem now. 

There’s a lot more to the back story of why and how the library operates with such racial divisiveness but you’re not reading about much of that in the paper. It kinda goes into my constant rant about the need for a diverse newsroom to shed a more complete light on issues like this. 

Here’s what I didn’t like about the Inquirer article today. In the very first paragraph it says…

This week’s ouster of Siobhan Reardon as director of the Free Library of Philadelphia has sent the tidal waves of 2020 crashing down on the 129-year-old institution, as its leaders struggle to navigate workers’ demands, complaints about “cancel culture,” and the new reality created by the Black Lives Matter movement.

I was okay until they threw in ‘the new reality created by the Black Lives Matter movement.’ The article gives no credence that BLM had anything to do with Reardon’s ouster. They casually tossed in Black Lives Matter to get some people’s blood pressure rising. (We call it Throwing Shade).

In an article the day before, they threw in… ‘The resignation is the latest local reverberation of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.’ How the hell does George Floyd and Siobhan Reardon go together?

They make the correction much later in the article when they write…

Meanwhile, the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia — which launched this moment of reckoning with a June 25 open letter alleging racial discrimination, pay disparities, and a lack of coronavirus safety measures for employees — are upping their demands for change.

The Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia was born a couple years ago when George Floyd was living his best life.

Here’s a story for you.

Once upon a time (about 3 years ago) the Philadelphia Inquirer had a writer on the Philadelphia library beat. She just happened to be a black lady very new to the journalism world. I just happened to be good friends with her father from Wilmington, DE. 

TyLisa Johnson wrote great stories about the Philadelphia library system. As a library fan, I probably paid more attention to these stories than the normal reader, but libraries hardly ever get newspaper coverage and to have a somewhat personal connection to her through her father  made it more fun (we’ve never met in person). 

And then they took her off the library beat right around the time things were getting a little testy in the Free Library board rooms on Ben Franklin Parkway. I saw less and less of her byline, and now I just learned she’s gone from the Inquirer. But, she never stopped loving and covering libraries which I catch on her Twitter posts occassionally. 

As I read the Inquirer’s article these last few days on this messy Philadelphia library situation, I could only wonder how it would be covered if TyLisa was still writing. So, I checked out her Twitter posts today and saw she’s still on the job covering Philadelphia library stuff, this time without the restrictions of a newspaper editor. 

She’s launched her own website to address Philadelphia library issues. She has links to many of her old articles, a WHYY interview, and two recent interviews with a couple black library employees connected with the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia telling the real behind-the-scenes stories of how we got to this point of Reardon’s ouster. 

From one of the interviews on TyLisa’s site. You won’t read this in the Inquirer…

The administration is so, it’s so entrenched in white supremacy. It will never admit that it’s racist, and it will never admit that it doesn’t know what’s best for Black people. Like that’s literally the culture of the library, is that these very wealthy white people who are leading this know what’s best for what they consider to be poor, uneducated, Black people in Philadelphia, that is their mindset. they cannot understand racism and they cannot understand their own involvement in white supremacy.

Visit TyLisa C. Johnson’s VOICES OF NOW. 


https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia/philadelphia-free-library-race-20200724.html

https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia/philadelphia-free-library-director-siobhan-reardon-resigns-20200723.html