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Buildings on 40th and Walnut Corners Credit: Alexandra Fleischman , Alexandra Fleischman

On a late Monday evening, the public library at 40th and Walnut streets was busy with parents reading to their young children, adults reading for leisure and teenagers playing computer games.

Though the library is not a prime spot for Penn students, the Walnut Street West branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia welcomes the entire West Philadelphia community.

According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report released earlier this month, the Free Library of Philadelphia, with 54 branches spread throughout the city, is under-used.

Even though the city’s public library system has the highest branch per capita among other major U.S. cities, due to funding cuts and thus shorter hours, it is among the least used in the country.

‘Very well used in the community’

After a 20 percent budget cut in 2008, the library system was under a strain to maintain its 54 branches, according to Library Operations Director Joe Benford.

However, “we’ve kind of learned to adapt,” Benford said, adding that this has led to shorter hours at many branches.

The shorter hours and emergency closures due to staff shortages, as the report suggests, may be the reason Philadelphia libraries seem under-used.

This, however, is not an accurate description of the Walnut Street West branch, branch manager Ai Leng Ng said. “We are the most used branch in the west,” she said. “We are basically very well used in the community,” Ng said, explaining that the branch circulates approximately 14,000 items each month.

She added that although there were funding and staff cuts, the situation has been quite steady recently. “Everybody is short of staff,” Ng said, “but we manage.”

Many of the library’s visitors, such as Charles Corprew, 51, are residents of West Philadelphia.

Corprew, who has lived in West Philadelphia for 40 years, said he visits the library mainly to surf the web.

The first level of the library contains meeting rooms and a circulation desk. The second level is much busier and holds the books, DVDs, computers and other resources.

Corprew notes that one reason he prefers this branch over others is that “it’s nice and it’s quiet.” Despite the number of visitors, there were no disruptive sounds of kids shouting or cell phones ringing.

Not a college hotspot

Though it is conveniently located, not many college students frequent the public library although “we would love to see them,” said Christina Kottcamp, the Free Library’s assistant to the chief of the Extension Services Division.

The 40th and Walnut branch offers free wi-fi and computers. Penn students are also able to register for a free library card in person or online.

Kottcamp said the library offers more recreational than academic materials, such as popular fiction novels and DVDs.

The public library can also offer Penn students a more convenient and quiet study space, especially for those living further away from Penn’s libraries and those seeking a change of scenery.

Wharton freshman Nancy Trinh, a local of Philadelphia, said she went to the library twice a month before coming to Penn. However, she has since only been once to clear up overdue books and fines.

Although Trinh said the staff were friendly, her school work prevents her from vising more often. “I don’t have time to read books for leisure,” Trinh said. “If I did have more time, I would go there.”

Engineering junior Michael Rivera said he uses Penn’s libraries more than the public library. Rivera is also from Philadelphia and has a Free Library library card.

Even though Rivera has time for some leisure reading, he does not use the public library to access fiction. “I usually borrow off a friend or buy off of Amazon,” he said.

The public library is hidden both from sight and mind for new students. “I didn’t even know that was a library until my sophomore year,” College junior Tommy Eggleston said.

Eggleston has never visited the branch. “If I need to go to the library, I’ll just go to Van Pelt,” he said. As for access to leisure materials, “I already have books to read for class,” Eggleston said, adding that he has little need for a public library.

In addition to offering college students study spaces and recreational resources, Penn students can volunteer or work at the branch for work study credit.

The library is also the place where student groups and the University community, like Penn’s Veterinary School and the Circle K Club — a community service organization — can hold regular meetings and other events for free.

A community hub

Though under-used by Penn students, the library is more frequented by residents in the neighborhood.

Professors and graduate students living on or near campus with their families use the library to borrow recreational materials and to participate in programs, such as tutoring, English as a Second Language classes and after-school and teen programs, Kottcamp said.

The library also offers many programs for younger students, many of whom attend local schools such as Penn Alexander, Kottcamp said.

“A lot of our children’s programs are very popular,” Ng said. “We do have an emphasis on the area.”

The Pew study also indicates that the Philadelphia branches offer many well-attended programs.

Local resident Susan Elliot brings her daughter to the library every one or two weeks to borrow books. As she waited for her daughter to finish a chess program, she said, “I think its great. It’s beautiful. They have nice activities, too, for the children.” She added that the library is located conveniently for her and has longer hours on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Her young daughter, Jolie Ouattara, enjoys the programs the library offers. “I like that I get to play chess and I can get books for free.” However, even Ouattara notices the constant shortage in staff. “They should have more people in the children’s area,” Ouattara said.

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