The Free Library is grappling with how to be a better 21st century resource for a needy city. Recent years have been tough on the library – budget and staff cuts, threats of branch closures, overdue repairs – and a recent report
by the Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative explored the Free Library’s current challenges and opportunities
in comparison to other big-city systems.
The library for its part is willing to change with the times, taking a distinctly utilitarian approach: do the most good for the most people.
Some shifts, like adding more computing resources and renovating branches, will bring big improvements for neighborhood libraries and the communities they serve.
But I’m left wondering where this leaves the Parkway Central branch’s special collections
I’m talking about resources like the library’s vastly important Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music
with more than 21,000 orchestral titles (the world’s largest available to borrow), or the WPA-era Philadelphia Graphic Arts Workshop archive
, or the Early American Children’s Book
collection (started as a gift of A.S.W. Rosenbach). The list goes on.
While these collections might not be critical to the library’s day-to-day function, they help make the Free Library a world-class public institution.
Given the library’s financial picture and a lot of competing priorities, pieces of the library’s special collections could be up for grabs. A recent Inquirer article
explained the process underway:
An inventory study, expected to be done by May - there are more than one million items in the Prints and Picture Collection alone - will go to the special collections committee, which decides what will go and what will stay.
"We're reviewing every item," says [Free Library president/director Siobhan] Reardon.
A number of factors will be considered, including wishes of the item's donor (if applicable) and relevance to the collection. In addition to books, the library has an impressive trove of ephemera, as well as original paintings and sculpture. Warhol Campbell's Soup Can and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis prints are being considered for sale, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study on the library released last week.
Some holdings may have better homes elsewhere; others will be kept because of connections to the library that may not be immediately obvious, Reardon says.
I cringe when I hear that the library is contemplating getting rid of pieces of its vast and wondrous collection.
I was a public library kid, and as a researcher today I love working with librarians like Richard Boardman, head of the Map Collection, and Aurora Deshauteurs, a curator from Print and Pictures. Both know their collections intimately and are a pleasure to work with. They find what the online catalogue can’t.
On a recent visit to see a set of historic aerial photos of Philadelphia, Deshauteurs told me that Sotheby’s has made three appointments to see the Print and Pictures Collection’s holdings to appraise pieces in the collection.
“What we don’t sell, we’ll at least have an idea of what our collection is worth,” Deshauteurs told me, trying to put a positive face on a topic that disappoints her.
The reality is that the library is considering all of its options, which includes the possibility that parts of its public collections could be sold to private buyers or peer institutions.
Reardon told the Inquirer
that “every item” is being evaluated, but at an event about the future of the library
last week she said, that the “depth and breadth of the collections here are what people need access to.” So which is it?