On Thurs., April 14th, Ms. Siobhan Reardon, the first female President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, delivered a lecture at the Warner Memorial Library entitled “A Strategy for Maintaining Relevance: The Free Library of Philadelphia in the 21st Century.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the Agora Institute and the Eastern University Libraries and Staff, and a fair number of Eastern students and supporters of the community were in attendance.
Named Library Journal’s 2015 Librarian of the Year, Reardon is no stranger to the world of libraries. Beginning in the world of finance, Reardon then moved on to manage the budget of the New York Public Library from 1988 to 1996, direct the operations of the Brooklyn Public Library from 1996 to 2005, and eventually to oversee the direction of the Westchester Library System from 2005 to 2008. Now, as the Chief Executive of one of the nation’s largest urban public library systems, Reardon is responsible for ensuring the institution’s standing at a time when the world of libraries is quickly changing.
To that end, Reardon has developed an ambitious five-year strategic plan for the Free Library of Philadelphia, undergirded by the FLP’s mission to “advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity…to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” Her lecture was a close look at this mission, focusing on the FLP’s vision for the future, which includes the physical and programmatic change of various neighborhood libraries to meet the needs of the community. Reardon first outlined some alarming statistics about the Philly region: over half of the adult population, an estimated 550,000 individuals are considered low literate; the poverty rate is nearly 27 percent; and nearly 200,000 adults are without their high school diplomas.
She then described the layout of the libraries with the FLP family, each library grouped within what she deems “clusters.” Each cluster group is designated a cluster leader, who, with the aim of higher efficiency and collaboration, oversees the organization of the libraries within that group.
To further the library’s mission, Reardon has spearheaded two major initiatives with the FLP, the first of which is technology hot spots across the region. These hot spots are designed to move the library beyond its walls by creating computer and internet outposts that offer free tech access and training to undeserved neighborhoods in partnership with local organizations. With nearly 40 percent of the city’s population lacking an internet connection, Reardon hopes that the hot spots will help bridge the city’s digital divide. The second initiative, which began in 2014, is the FLP’s Culinary Literacy Center, complete with a demonstration kitchen facility, rooftop garden, and Philadelphia chef Mark Vetri. The center is designed to teach the city’s occupants about healthy eating while also advancing literacy, making Philadelphians take charge behind the stove and the page.
Ultimately, the main focus of the FLP’s mission is to get Philly’s occupants within the doors of a library by reinventing the space of libraries, making flexible and engaging areas where families and scholars alike can reap the benefits of the Free Library. These spatial changes come with a major renovation to the Parkway Central Library, whose Beaux Arts Center will lose its closed stacks and gain 45,000 square feet of new public space. Various branch libraries will also receive similar makeovers, all in order to open the libraries to the public and get people reading and communing. We will have to see the changes for ourselves as they come to fruition over the next several years.