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The 21st Century Library Set For 6th and Lehigh – Free Library Focus

The Lillian Marrero Branch (601 Lehigh Ave.) is the picture of a library — an elegant facade complete with two towering ionic columns. The words “Free Library of Philadelphia” are etched large and bold into the lintel over an impressive set of stone stairs. But on a cloudy February afternoon, one patron is having some trouble with this picture. She takes the steep stairs one at a time, pausing to rest on each step, one hand on the banister, the other clutching her cane. Her shoulders heave under a heavy, black shawl.

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Marrero Branch of the Free Library (601 E Lehigh Ave.)/Megan Matuzak

“And so you see this new design is based around a functioning elevator.” Rebekah Ray, the branch manager at Lillian Marrero, says pointing to some renderings of the proposed remodeling.

“We have a chair lift right now, but it functions, um, randomly.”  

On April 1, 2016 the library will close for an estimated 21 months to undergo extensive remodeling as part of Building Inspiration, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s 21st Century Library Initiative. Announced in 2014, the initiative is a widespread effort to fulfill a greater demand for resources, especially digital resources, in Philadelphia’s libraries.

Indeed, digital resources are scant systemwide. Few branches in the city have more than 10 computers and fewer have separate computer labs outside of the stacks. According to Ray, with 17 computers, the Marrero branch manages to be the busiest lab in the city. The new model will introduce devices with more mobility such as laptops and tablets in addition to the existing desktop units. With this internal loan system, patrons will be able to choose where in the library they want to work, as opposed to being confined to a lab.

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Rebekah Ray, Branch Manager at the Marrero branch.

The theme of this new model is flexibility. From the new elevator to laptops and tablets to moveable shelving, the library will provide greater degrees of access through an adaptable interior design. The existing shelving will be taken out and replaced with shelves with locking wheels. These will allow staff to shift the structure of the stacks based on the day-to-day fluctuations in need for space. “Everything will be more open,” Ray said. “And in the center of it all will be a sort of living room space where people can sit and be present with others.”

When the building was constructed in 1906, there was a music hall in the basement. However in the 1970s, city government was expanding. City agencies needed space and the Marrero library was in need of repairs. The city renovated the basement, using some of the space for government offices and eliminating the theater. But with the new renovations, the performance space is coming back. “The city agencies all moved out last year and we’re putting in a black box theater,” Ray said. “It will be lovely for this part of the city to have a unique, non-sectarian, space for performance, free to the public. Great for public events and library programs and theater workshops.” Other additions to the branch will include a full kitchen for culinary classes and a roof garden for outdoor lessons and events in fair weather.

On February 10th, the Marrero branch held a public meeting to discuss the renovations. The meeting opened up with a vote on zoning variances. The project needs a special exemption from the Zoning Board of Adjustments as the building is technically zoned residential. There is also a variance needed for the proposed roof garden. All roof decks in Philadelphia require a variance before they are built. Both variances were approved unanimously by residents who attended the meeting.

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Members of the community listen as renovation plans for the library are explained to them.

After the vote, there was a short presentation involving renderings of the proposed renovations given by Chris Dardis, the project manager and Joe Benford, the deputy director. Questions about construction were also fielded by Donna Globus and Lisa Mattioli, representatives of Intech, the construction firm in charge of the project. Globus and Mattioli expressed that Intech is looking for union workers in the neighborhood to help with the renovations.

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Joe Benford presenting to the audience at the Marrero branch zoning meeting.

Then the meeting turned to a more pressing issue, what will the patrons, especially school children, do during the 18-21 months the library is closed. “This is my biggest concern,” said Ray. “A lot of our kids walk here from school. A lot of them don’t have internet at home. Internet access in this neighborhood is at about 35 percent and I believe that’s overreported. They need the computers to do their schoolwork.”

Bus routes in the North Philadelphia library cluster were discussed. The 54 could take children west to the Widner Branch at 28th and Lehigh and east to McPherson at Indiana and E Streets. The 47 could take them south to Rodriguez at 6th and Girard. The current plan is to have Rodriguez host the equipment from the computer lab during the time Marrero is closed.

“We are going to try to maintain library services through the local schools,” North Philadelphia Neighborhood Library cluster manager, Marion Parkinson told the audience. “Also the Techmobile will be here once a week.” The Techmobile is a van that provides laptop and wifi services.

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The interior of the Marrero branch of the Free Library.

While the extended closure presents some problems for the neighborhood, the general sentiment of those involved in the project is resoundingly positive. Parkinson is most excited about the structural overhaul of the building’s HVAC system. “We were closed for six weeks last winter because the heater failed,” she said. “Then another month in the summer because of the air conditioning.” Free Library Board of Trustees Member, Ignatius Wang called the project “a quantum leap” in the future of Philadelphia’s libraries.

Marrero is one of five branches across the city chosen for this new model. Other branches include Logan, Lovett Memorial and Tacony, all of which will close April 1st to begin renovations. The South Philadelphia branch, in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is also part of this project and has already been under renovations for over a year. It will be the first of the five to reopen. Projected reopening is April 2016.

Library, Free Library, Marrero Branch

/Megan Matuzak

Photos by Megan Matuzak

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