Turmoil continues to rock the Free Library of Philadelphia

Getty Images

Siobhan Reardon, who led the Free Library of Philadelphia for more than a decade, is gone, but institution racism, a group of employees say, has not left.

The Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia (CBWFLP) has been pushing for change within the library system since late last month. At around the same time, a union-backed petition arose calling for Reardon’s removal.

She stepped aside last Thursday, amid allegations that she and others ignored or deflected after employees reported incidents of racism. Workers also pointed to pay disparities for Black employees and a lack of upward mobility.

Mayor Jim Kenney said Reardon’s resignation was a necessary leadership change amid calls for reform.

However, at a special meeting of the Free Library’s Board of Trustees, chairwoman Pamela Dembe indicated that COVID-19 reopening would be the priority.

“We also know that we need to entirely restructure the organization to make it safe and equitable and supportive for everybody who’s there, but that is just going to have to take a little bit of a back seat, just for these few weeks until we get the plan up and rolling,” she said.

Dembe said the city would eliminate pay and benefits for library workers if branches didn’t reopen soon. A Free Library spokesperson later told Metro that city officials never relayed that message to Dembe.

A select number of libraries began offering pickup and drop-off services Monday, but none have fully opened to the public.

Following Reardon’s departure, CBWFLP called for Dembe to step aside. Alexis Ahiagbe, a member of the group who is director of volunteer services for the library, described Dembe as “having the same mindset” as Reardon.

Dembe, through a library spokesperson, said she has no plans to resign.

Ahiagbe accused Reardon of trying to block and discredit a survey she created to measure bias within the library system. An overwhelming number of respondents said they witnessed racism in the workplace.

She criticized board members who she characterized as “lamenting” Reardon’s resignation. In a statement last week, Dembe praised Reardon’s “vision and leadership” and Robert Heim, a member and former chair, said that it would be “a challenge” to “find a visionary leader of her caliber.”

“When you make statements like that, basically you’re saying one of two things, or at least this is how it’s perceived: Either you don’t believe that all the things that have come out that happened to people of color in the library happened, or you don’t care, and that’s a problem,” Ahiagbe said.

The board provided a platform for Black workers to speak up at its Tuesday meeting, but Ahiagbe said she noticed members on the Zoom call taking personal phone calls and indulging in other distractions.

“We feel that we were not heard or paid attention to,” she said. “It was just a moment to get things off our chest, is what it felt like.”

Andrea Lemoins, another CBWFLP member who works primarily out of the Paschalville Library in Southwest Philadelphia, said during the meeting that concerns of Black employees “cannot be put on the back burner.”

Kaitlyn Foti, a spokeswoman for the library, said administrators anticipate developing an action plan in response to the issues raised by Black employees. It’s expected that document will be presented to the board in September, she said.

In addition, the Free Library will seek the CBWFLP’s input in its COVID-19 reopening protocols, Foti said.

Ahiagbe suggested creating a fund to help pay tuition for employees of color to pursue master’s degrees in library science, which are required for librarians in the system. It’s a program that could also be opened to the wider community, she said.

“The board has already started talking about trying to raise funds to support education for workers of color to move on up,” Dembe said Tuesday.

Lemoins said the CBWFLP should play a role in selecting Reardon’s interim and permanent successors.

Right now, Leslie M. Walker, who was Reardon’s chief of staff, is filling the position. A committee of board members is searching for an interim director, and a national search, which could take months or even a year, will follow, officials said.

More from our Sister Sites