Free Library of Philadelphia wants to make this clear: 'We're here to serve you' - Generocity Philly


Oct. 10, 2018 11:55 am

Free Library of Philadelphia wants to make this clear: ‘We’re here to serve you’

A three-year community engagement grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services will train staffers of all levels to better serve the neighborhoods where its 54 branches are based.

A Free Library rainbow sidewalk sign from Philly Free Streets in August 2018.

(Photo via

Editor's note: Clarification that the mentioned grant requires all Free Library of Philadelphia staffers to attend its workshops has been added. (10/10, 1:25 p.m.)
Librarian Chera Kowalski received national attention last year for administering Narcan spray to people experiencing overdoses from opioids in between her duties at McPherson Square Library in Kensington.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Newall first described how she ran outside the Free Library of Philadelphia branch with the overdose reversal drug in hand after being alerted of an overdose by McPherson’s guard, Sterling Davis, in May 2017. Those emergencies sprang up often as Kowalski helped patrons on computers, updated the library’s collections and led programming.

The variety of work Kowalski did at McPherson is one example of how libraries can become community hubs for more than just checking out books.

The Free Library is working to deepen its community engagement throughout its 54 branches with the Skills for Community-Centered Libraries initiative, a series of four workshops and special projects for 300 public service library staff.

"We are endeavoring to change how the community thinks about the library."
Lynn Williamson, Free Library of Philadelphia

“We are endeavoring to change how the community thinks about the library and that they think more about the library as a place for the community to come and learn together,” said Lynn Williamson, chief of the neighborhood library services division and project director.

The inaugural workshop, called Building Connections, which focused on personal strengths, team building and the team’s role in engaging with the community, was held on Oct. 2; future workshops in the series are Effective Communication, Community Engagement and Program Development.

Staff from all levels were divided into 12 groups of 25 people. Williamson said that’s because the library strongly feels all staffers — from the administrators to the curators — have insights on community engagement.

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“In some cases, the staff who are our library assistants and municipal guards live in the community around the library where the librarian may not,” Williamson said. “They have connections and insights and interests in helping to connect the community to the library that we don’t want to overlook.”

“I’m really excited [about] the fact that they have all job classes represented in this cohort, too,” said Kowalski, who now works as assistant to the chief of staff at the Free Library, “recognizing that it’s not just librarians, it’s librarian assistants, it’s our municipal guards, all working together to create this community-focused environment and institution.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency, awarded the Free Library a three-year $479,955 grant from its Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program to develop the project’s curriculum and implement it. The grant program aims to support professional development to better serve the needs of the public.

"This is work that we had been doing for a while and this helps give us an extra leverage in carrying that forward."
Lynn Williamson

According to the Inquirer, the Free Library’s branches in the city’s high poverty areas close more frequently and earlier than other branches in low poverty areas because of staffing shortages.

“Our issues with short staffing could potentially impact staff’s ability to attend these trainings, but we hope that the connections that the trainings will encourage between the library and the community will only help strengthen the library as a whole,” Williamson said.

(A rep for the library system reached out after this story was published to clarify: “The grant requires that all staff attends, and we will fulfill that requirement.”)

Williamson added that the library will make needed adjustments to the schedule so that all staff can attend, since the training is crucial for learning more about their communities and better supporting them.

Kowalski said she is looking forward to the workshops.

“A grant like this, focusing so much on the community, is something that I’ve always looked at [in] my profession as [being essential to] really finding ways to build that trust and actually make it clear that we’re here serving the community,” she said. “We’re here to serve you.”

Williamson said she was enthusiastic when the library received the grant in August 2017.

“It’s very important to me professionally that we deepen our ties to the community,” she said. “I think it couldn’t have come at a better time because this is work that we had been doing for a while and this helps give us an extra leverage in carrying that forward.”

Staffer Chera Kowalski said the first workshop focused on how participants' strengths can be incorporated into team roles for their work at the library.

The first year of the grant involved developing the curriculum through conversations between the Free Library; language connectED, a local educational consulting firm that designs hands-on workshops; the project’s national advisory committee; and the project’s evaluator, Philadelphia-based Creative Research and Evaluation.

Williamson said language connectED, which will be leading the workshops, are experts in adult education. The firm uses role-playing and exercises to engage participants. After completing the workshops, participants will work on 12-week long projects to apply what they learned during the series. There will be a list of suggested projects but staff can propose other ideas or choose to work in groups.

Kowalski was among the first 25 participants in the inaugural workshop along with Davis. She said she enjoyed the first workshop because it was focused on the participants as professionals and how their strengths can be incorporated into team roles for their work at the library.

“I felt it was a really good foundation for us to discuss, especially in a small group setting and to also hear what my colleagues think their strengths are as well,” she said. “I think it was a really great starting point.”

As part of the project, the curriculum will be piloted next September at libraries across the country, including:

  • San Francisco Public Library in California
  • Hartford Public Library in Connecticut
  • Halifax Public Library in Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Multnomah County Public Library in Portland, Oregon
  • Shippensburg Public Library in Pennsylvania
  • Columbus Public Library in Wisconsin
  • Cleveland Public Library in Ohio

“The grant is intended to produce a curriculum that will be applicable not just to urban public libraries but to all public libraries,” Williamson said.

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