COURTESY TOM DOUGHERTY/FRIENDS OF THE FREE LIBRARY PHILADELPHIA
Eleanor Childs describes herself as mostly apolitical. She votes during election time but doesn’t work for any political parties or groups. Her classes of first and second graders at the small West Philadelphia elementary school where she has taught since the early 1980s have been the overwhelming focus of her strong community spirit. In early November, though, when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter proposed permanently closing her neighborhood library, along with ten others across the city, in order to help bridge a $1 billion budget shortfall, Childs changed. “Girl, you’ve got to fight this,” she recalls thinking. “I’ve got to do it, and a lot of it, because we’ve got to save these libraries. And that’s what happened all over this city. They got a push back that was unbelievable.”
In order to illustrate the impact that closure of their branch–the Charles Durham Library–would have on their community, parents and teachers at Childs’s school organized Book-Trek. It began with a reading from a children’s book about the negative consequences of closing libraries–a book found, ironically enough, in the Durham Library by one of the students at Childs’s school. “Then,” Childs says, “we got up, put our coats on, because it was cold that day, and we walked from here to the next closest library.” It took the group–including students aged 3 to 10–nearly an hour. They even had a police escort to speed things up. Add another hour to browse the shelves or conduct activities with library staff, eat lunch, return to school and “that’s almost your whole day,” explains Childs. “So it’s like a field trip. And you’re not going to do that every week.”
According to Childs, the Durham Library is the heart of her students’–and West Philadelphia’s–cultural life. She escorts her students nearly every week to the library. They all have library cards. The branch manager, Mr. Ed, often reads stories to the kids and helps them get acquainted with how to use the library system for research or simply to enjoy a book. “We really take advantage of the resources of the city,” says Childs. “And our first neighborhood resource is the library.”
West Philadelphia’s Book-Trek wasn’t the first, or the last, grassroots action aimed at saving the city’s network of public libraries. Throughout November and December, an unprecedented amount of opposition to Nutter’s closure plan emerged in nearly every neighborhood of the city, though the majority of libraries slated for closure were in poor communities. As Philadelphia faces its greatest structural crisis since the early 1990s, when it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, citizen activists like Childs are at the forefront of the movement to save essential city services.
The backlash against Nutter’s proposal began just four days after his November 6 announcement, across the city from the Durham Library, in Fishtown, a modestly gentrified neighborhood in North Philadelphia, where coffee shops, bars and art galleries have sprouted up over the past few years amid large warehouse buildings–lingering reminders of the city’s industrial past. A.J. Thomson, an attorney in private practice, who was born and raised in Fishtown, immediately went to work on organizing a protest. “My personal inspiration,” he says, “was knowing that there’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood that use the library, and without it they won’t have anywhere else to go. If they don’t continue to have the opportunity to use it, then we’ve failed this neighborhood.”