voices in the stacks
WHISPERS IN THE STACKS
The Free Library of Philadelphia's legacy was built on the shoulders of giants. Established in 1894, it's one of the oldest and largest library systems in the country. Since late June, many have watched The Free Library administration grapple with calls from its Black employees to address race, bias and discrimination within the system. For years, calls to address issues ranging from racism to sexism to ageism went unanswered, or were addressed in a way some felt was insufficient. This is a platform for those voices.
A safe space, where they can tell their stories for those who want to hear them.
(A BIT OF) CONTEXT
After a viral Twitter thread in late June 2020, more than 5 renowned authors -- including Colson Whitehead -- canceled appearances scheduled at The Free Library in solidarity with The Free Library's Concerned Black Workers, who penned an open letter to library leaders, which said racial discrimination and a disregard for Black safety "will no longer be tolerated." It called on Library leaders to protect their Black, most vulnerable staffers.
Many Black workers feel that for a long time they have tried, to no avail, to be heard.
As a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I first wrote about Philly libraries in September 2018. Within weeks, I learned about staff shortages and crumbling library branch infrastructure that caused a series of daily closures. Ceilings crumbling. Flooding. Mold. Broken HVACs.
I started to visit the Library's website every day, where they listed daily branch closures. And nearly every day, a branch was open late or shuttered completely, for one reason or another. In the late fall of 2018, a movement swelled. Advocates showed up to Philadelphia City Hall by the dozens to advocate for additional money for the library's 54 branches. It was reminiscent of a 2008 movement when residents took to the streets to halt the closure of 11 library branches.
But around the same time the movement grew, whispers began about an internal diversity and bias survey that was circulated by staffers.
I soon learned that in December 2018 a survey was posted by staffers that asked staffers whether they'd experienced or observed bias, racism or harassment in the system. About 60 responses poured in. A few hours later, the Library president had the survey removed. It wouldn't be until March 2019, after union involvement and internal unrest, that the survey would be reposted. This time, responses were nearly double (more than 100) and they illuminated instances of racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, ageism, biased hiring and placement practices, and more.
A few weeks after I wrote about the survey, Library leaders went before Philadelphia City Council and were grilled in a hearing that lasted longer than two hours. Council members questioned leadership about a host of issues -- mainly, crumbling infrastructure, staff shortages and diversity challenges, all of which had been highlighted in my reporting in the previous seven months.
The library was granted additional funding in the final budget, but it also received an accountability plan for its leaders.
The library has struggled for years with these issues. At least three former employees filed civil rights lawsuits against the library. One suit ended in a settlement of $382,500.
This section of the Voices of Now blog was created to elevate the Black voices at The Free Library, and other marginalized library workers affected by an institution slow to change.
WHYY in Philadelphia features TyLisa C. Johnson in 2020 to talk about FLP bias, diversity problems boiling over
WHYY in Philadelphia features TyLisa C. Johnson in May 2019 about the modernization of The Free Library
READ THE BLACK VOICES AT THE FREE LIBRARY(click their names to view their interviews)
READ THE STORIES
More Free Library stories:
Why Free Library workers are calling for their director to resign by Layla A. Jones
The latest Open Letter from Concerned Black Workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia to the Library's Board of Trustees
July 14 response letter from Free Library President Siobhan Reardon
More response updates coming soon...
In 2019, I created this graphic [below] to show the breakdown of staff by positions and race, to illustrate that although leaders often tout a majority minority staff, many of their Black staff are in subordinate or guard/maintenance roles.