Swarthmore Public Library: 90 Years at the Heart of the Community (Part 2)
For two years following the 1950 fire, the library occupied temporary quarters in the former Swarthmore Telephone Exchange (also called the “old Bell Building”) at 215 Harvard Avenue. Once again, the community rallied to support the library, with donations of books pouring in from private citizens, Swarthmore College, and many other institutions. In 1952, the librarians’ hopes were fulfilled when the library re-opened in its spacious quarters in the newly constructed Borough Hall.
Both the collection and circulation continued to grow. In 1958, Swarthmore Public Library had the largest per capita circulation for communities of its size: while circulation in most communities was between 1 and 3 books per person, for Swarthmore it was 16.48! By 1959, the library’s collection had soared to 28,000 books, circulation, at a new high, was almost double what it had been in 1949, and a new 60-drawer card catalogue was acquired. The only complaint about the new library was that it lacked air conditioning. During summer’s hottest weeks, the temperature frequently exceeded 85°F inside the library!
In 1967, the non-profit Friends of Swarthmore Public Library (also known simply as “the Friends”) was founded to help the library with special programs, exhibits, and fundraising. Led by Chuck Topping — the first president of the Friends and later president of the Library Board of Trustees — the group held its their first event, an “Author’s Reception,” in April 1967. The Friends also took over the work of organizing and sponsoring the book sales, which have numbered between one and three annually over the past 50+ years.
In the early 1980s, Swarthmore Public Library joined the newly formed federated Delaware County Library System, and inter-library loans became possible. The late1980s saw the advent of computers in the library, at first only for administrative purposes. The library officially went online in 1993 for circulation and administration, but it took another five years before it had two computers available for public use, complete with Internet access. Borough Hall underwent extensive renovations in 1995, and its new look and layout (the same as it is today) was unveiled in 1996 with great fanfare.
The past 20 years have seen continual advances in technology, including the debut of the library’s website, the ability to borrow e-books and e-readers, and the addition of five desktop and three laptop computers for library use.
Today, the Friends is under the direction of President Carol Kennedy, whose energy and enthusiasm for the library knows no bounds. She and her tireless board (Vice-President Betty Dowling, Treasurer Anne Papa, and Secretary Virginia Williams Joyce), along with countless volunteers, successfully raise money for the library by holding two popular book sales each year, and sending out an annual fundraising appeal. The Friends also supports special events such as Book It! (the annual 5K race between Helen Kate Furness and Swarthmore Public libraries), and this year, in partnership with the library, the events celebrating SPC’s 90th anniversary.
Swarthmore Public Library continues to flourish under the direction of the nine-member Board of Trustees and Library Director Amber Osborne, with the support of her five staff members (Carol Mackin, Lucy Saxon, Scott Schumacher, Perri Rechner, and Sadhana Kapur), and more than 35 dedicated volunteers, who collectively donate more than 3,000 hours (the equivalent of 1½ staff!) to the library each year.
In 2019, the library offered approximately 750 adult and children’s programs that were attended by almost 12,000 people, and it continues to boast the highest per capita circulation of any public library in Delaware County. (That’s been a bragging right for several decades!) Two-thirds of Swarthmore’s population (excluding the population of the college) have library cards, and this small but mighty library is open 60 hours a week, year-round, providing easy access to its nearly 57,000 books, periodicals, CDs and DVDs, and as of 2015, its many passes to local museums, zoos, and parks. Other library offerings include online resources such as language learning, genealogy, and animated talking picture books for children. And if that isn’t enough, thanks to online access through the Delaware County Library System, patrons can borrow, renew and return e-books and audio books 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At its 90th anniversary, the library is in the same predicament it was in in 1929: it is bursting at the seams! In 2018, an independent library consultant studied the library’s space, collection, programs, and patron use, and concluded that the library needs more than twice the space currently occupied to adequately meet the needs of the community in the near future. The years ahead promise to be interesting, as options are evaluated for acquiring more space and altering the existing space.
In a report from 1929, when the library opened, Harold Barnes (first Library Board president) wrote: “What you will see is only a small beginning but our faith in the citizenship of Swarthmore is such that we believe it will only be a question of a comparatively short time until the little mole hill of effort will grow and develop into a mountain of accomplishment.”
How right he was!