What I've Learned in a Year at the Free Library

By Kate C. RSS Fri, October 7, 2016

This week marks my one-year anniversary working for the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, the non-profit organization that supports the Free Library. I was hired as the system’s social media manager, to use the digital space to tell the Free Library’s story, to promote its wonderful and far-reaching programs and services, and to provide an avenue of customer service to those who depend on us.

I have a public relations and social media background, having worked in the field for a college athletics department, a career services group, and a hospital; I did not have a library background. I am not a librarian. When I search for materials in the libraries to use in my posts, I often still struggle with the Dewey Decimal System (although I am getting better!). But this post isn’t about me. I want to share my story because I have realized over the past year, becoming immersed in this system and getting to know people at its 54+ locations and various departments, that there is so much the average person probably doesn’t know about the library and what it can offer. I was ignorant to so many of the library’s functions in the community, figuring that because I did know that people could check out DVDs and audiobooks in addition to regular books that I was up to speed. Below, I have compiled a list of the top 10 things that have surprised me about the Free Library since starting my job here in October 2015 — someone else out there may just be surprised, too! Because the Free Library of Philadelphia is a gold mine just waiting for our community members to come dig into it.

10. Several Free Library locations serve as cooling centers during the hot summer months
When the City of Philadelphia issues an excessive heat warning, certain neighborhood library locations offer extended hours for residents to get out of the heat and into an air-conditioned space, where they can also enjoy access to books, computers, wireless internet, and other library amenities. This information is posted, as soon as we know it, to our website and social media channels.

9. Our libraries serve their local communities in non-traditional ways
The McPherson Square Library is certified by the state to offer meals and snacks to hungry children, and it collects donations of food for the homeless.

8. Not all libraries are buildings
The Free Library system includes some entities that operate beyond building walls, including the Techmobile, a mobile computer lab featuring wireless internet access, laptops, iPads, and a printer; Hot Spots, which bring computer access, classes, and the internet to spots around Philadelphia neighborhoods, including one in the Terminal D/E connector at the Philadelphia International Airport; and the Book Bike, a pedal-powered mobile library that makes appearances at outdoor events in the city.

7. Furry friends are welcome
One of our more unconventional but totally adorable library programs is PAWS Read to a Dog, at which children are invited to sit with a therapy dog and read him or her a story, encouraging reading and communication skills in a fun, non-judgmental environment.

6. There’s something for everyone
Scan through the Free Library’s calendar of events—over 25,000 (!) are offered each year across the system—and you’ll soon see that there truly is something that appeals to everyone’s interests, from video games and role-playing to movie screenings and yoga and meditation.

5. We boast the premier author series in the region
Inaugurated in 1994, the Author Events program at the Free Library of Philadelphia offers the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with today’s most celebrated voices in the humanities and sciences. Called "the region’s preeminent forum for writers and ideas" by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Author Events Series has earned three "Best of Philly" designations from Philadelphia magazine (1997, 2001, 2009). Since its inception, the Author Events Series has grown dramatically, now presenting more than 125 authors each year, and also offers the Field Family Teen Author Series. In September, the legendary Bruce Springsteen visited the Free Library as part of his Born to Run book tour, and we were the only library included on his book tour circuit.

4. Say ‘I do’!
Our Parkway Central Library is one of the most sought-after wedding venues in the city! From its grand staircase in the lobby to the breath-taking view of the Philadelphia skyline on the 4th-floor terrace, it makes for some amazing photos and is the perfect place for your special day!

3. We’re building a healthy partnership
Over the course of the next year, the Free Library is partnering with the University of Pennsylvania and nursing student Melanie Mariano to become a health hub. Mariano was awarded a Penn President’s Engagement Prize, which will support her efforts as she works to provide a place for visitors to the Parkway Central Library to receive health information, assessments, screenings, tests, and eventually first aid certification and vaccinations, a model she eventually hopes to extend across the Free Library system.

2. The Free Library is a safe haven for ALL people
We are not shy about letting our community members know they will be safe and treated with respect when they walk through our doors, no matter where they come from, what they believe in, or what they look like. We have created Explore topics on our website to provide more information on these values as they fit into our mission, including resources for Black Lives Matter, Talking About Consent, and LGBTQ issues.

1. The Free Library matters
The Free Library of Philadelphia’s reach is clear. Each year, the Parkway Central Library hosts over 1 million visitors, and the neighborhood library locations welcome an additional 5 million in total. Over 6.5 million items circulate around the system, and our librarians and staff field an estimated 3.4 million reference questions each year. Our staff speaks more than 30 languages and is equipped to help as many customers as possible find what they need. The Free Library is the largest provider of free internet access in the region, helping our city get and stay connected. And each year, over 1,000 Philadelphians find jobs thanks to the programs and services offered by the Free Library. In my time so far at the Free Library, I have seen firsthand what a difference the library makes in the lives of the people of Philadelphia, in so many different ways. I don’t think the library means the same thing to anyone, and that’s an amazing thing.

Follow our #BeyondTheShelves hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, under the @FreeLibrary handle, to see more examples of the Free Library working in ways that just may surprise you! I can’t wait to see what other treasures I unearth in my second year and beyond!

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