Your very own home library branch

Hello, friends of the Free Library. It’s been a while.

I needed to take a break from the blog for reasons I won’t get into here. I had grand plans for a spring relaunch, but, well, y’know.* We’ll be back on our branch visitation game as soon as it’s safe. Pinky swear.

In the meantime, did you know that you can register for a library card online? It’s a great way to gain access to the library’s digital collections without leaving your home. I expect most of our readers will have a library card already, but tell your friends!

If you’re usually more of a physical book person, you might not be familiar with the Free Library’s digital offerings. There are a few different options for borrowing ebooks and digital audiobooks. I use Overdrive most often because of the high borrowing limit – you can have 6 books out at once! I also enjoy Hoopla‘s extensive catalog, but users are limited to 4 borrows per month. (Looking to maximize those borrows? Book Riot has a list of the best books on Hoopla right now.)

Of course, there’s more to the digital collections than books. If you’d like to spend some of your time at home learning something new, there are a number of online learning opportunities. You can pick up a new language with Mango, expand your professional skills with Lynda, and even get free live tutoring for K – 12 students.

Plus, there are some lesser-known gems in the digital collections. The Free Library has digitized over 50,000 historical images, which you can even browse by neighborhood. And did you know that you can get unlimited 72-hour passes to read The New York Times online?

Get access to all of this and more by visiting the full catalog of the Library’s digital offerings.

I’m looking forward to picking these branch visits up where we left off, as soon as it’s both possible and reasonably safe. In the meantime, I hope these tips help to get you through these challenging times.

Stay safe, be well, wash your hands, and I’ll see you again soon.

*If you’re reading this from the future, Philadelphia is approaching the end of its second week under a stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic. Library branches have been closed since March 15.

Lawncrest Library

The hottest book display game in town.

Our next branch visit is in Lawncrest, nestled between North Philadelphia and the Lower Northeast. Of the library branches we’ve visited so far, Lawncrest is the newest. A mere 58 years old! How fresh.

First, a little history.

Sidewalk leading up to building with "The Free Library of Philadelphia" sign
Gloomy day outside, welcoming inside. (Author’s note: Why do all of my branch visits seem to happen on the grayest, least photo-friendly days?)

A community rallies

In 1957, the neighborhoods of Lawndale and Crescentville didn’t have their own libraries. Residents needed to go to the Greater Olney branch to the west, the Bushrod branch to the east, or wait for the weekly bookmobile to visit. Lawncrest resident Mildred Pruitt wasn’t having it. She rallied her neighbors and founded the Lawn-Crest Library Association. That year, the director of the Free Library met with residents at the Lawncrest Rec Center to come up with a plan. Within a few years, the rec center would have a library next door.

Stone memorial with embedded bronze plaque in the foreground with bare winter trees in the background
This memorial grove sits between the library branch and the rec center. It was dedicated to soldiers of World War II in 1945.

Construction on Lawncrest Library began in 1960, which explains the modern architecture vibe that’s more reminiscent of regular ol’ municipal buildings than some of our grandiose Carnegie-funded libraries. When Lawncrest opened its doors in 1961, it marked the culmination of four years of grassroots efforts combined with leadership and collaboration from the Free Library system.

That brings us to today.

The tour

When you walk into the Lawncrest Library, you’ll see a large, open space with a meeting room off to the side. You can drop your (late — oops) returns off with a library employee on your way in, and maybe strike up a conversation. I ask my new library friend for her favorite parts about Lawncrest. She tells me that she’s been working in the library system for five years, that this has been her home branch the whole time, and that she loves it. It’s easy to see why. The block the library sits on isn’t the most active place, but the vibe inside is homey and comfortable. She also tells me that this branch is super-popular with kids. Come by on a weekday between 3:30 and 5, and this room is packed with kids.

View into the middle of the library from between two shelves, with multiple sets of round tables and chairs throughout
The center of the library is open and airy. It was a cloudy day, but ambient light still floated in from the skylights.

As you can see, the library isn’t quite as busy today. It’s late afternoon on a Saturday, and it’s pretty gross out. Still, patrons are hanging out, checking books out, and doing research on the library’s computers.

Even though we’re in one large room, the space has lots of nooks and separate-feeling spaces. In the back left corner, there’s a quiet area with several framed works of art in memory of community members.

Just outside the quiet area, you’ll find citizenship books and language learning materials for people new to the United States. This section also contains career guides and other employment-related books.

Across the way, there’s a whole set of shelves with books dedicated to Philadelphia specifically. Lawncrest has an exceptional display game. The library shelves aren’t exactly flowing over, but they do a remarkable job of picking out interesting books and making sure the patrons can see them. It’s easy to get swept up in. Don’t believe me? You’ll see when we get to the book swag.

8 shelves of books, with one book turned out for display on each shelf
A whole collection of books just about Philadelphia

When I’m checking out, the library staff person that I talked to earlier tells me about the LEAP program.* These free after school drop-in programs offer a huge range of activities for kids. At this branch, the kids in the program even got to paint a mural on the wall in the meeting room.

*Later, I’ll discover that this initiative includes free, online, live tutoring in English and Spanish — 7 days a week. So fantastic. Learn more here.

It’s hard to convey, but this library branch really feels like a space for the community. There are more plaques indicating that shelves and decor have been donated by Friends of the Library than I’ve ever seen. Right now, a mom and a librarian are working together to fill out some kind of benefits form on a library computer. That mom’s kid is having a blast nearby. I can hear library staff greeting regular patrons, and newspaper rustling. It’s somehow quiet and alive at the same time, with the occasional playful shriek of a toddler nearby.

The swag

Four books displayed on a table, including The Removers, Children of War, Pitch Black, and Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8
The superior displays in this library branch really got me. I wound up with four books!

Those displays get me so good that I wind up with four books. It’s almost more, but then I think of the special shelf I have at home for the library books I haven’t read yet. It involves bookends.

The Removers, a memoir by Andrew Meredith, comes from the Philadelphia display. According to a plaque inside the cover, it was donated by the Friends of Lawncrest Library in memory of Donald Vorgity. Children of War is a compilation of firsthand accounts from children who are Iraqi refugees. Pitch Black is a beautiful visual story about homelessness and community where a person might not expect it. Finally, Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 is a collection of reflections from a young Japanese man with severe autism. What a haul!

The summary

Lawncrest Library exists because its neighborhood(s) fought for it. It might not have the most resources, but it’s clear the community supports the branch, and the branch supports the community. It’s beautiful. Plus, if you’re not sure what to read next, those displays will help you out.

Official JOTR Rating:

That’s it for this tour. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!

Do you frequent Lawncrest Library? Do you have any hot tips about this location? Let us know in the comments!

Lovett Memorial Library

A 21st Century Library

Our next stop is on Germantown Avenue, right on the border between East and West Mount Airy.* Lovett Memorial Library was built in the late 1800s, but it was recently majorly renovated as one of four 21st Century Libraries. When it reopened in December 2017, Lovett had elevators, loads of computers, incredible lighting, and hammocks as far as the eye could see. It’s not exactly hammock season, but I promise they’re there. You can see them from the reading porch. Oh yeah — did I mention there’s a flippin’ reading porch?

(Technically it’s on the east side. Not to split hairs. Or neighborhoods.)

Front entrance and sign for Lovett Memorial
The circular sign says “retro,” the expansive windows say “21st Century Library”

Before we go any further, I have a disclaimer. This is the branch I spend the most time in. I’m not trying to play favorites, but I’m extra enthusiastic about this one. I mean, this is the branch where I pick up my holds. It’s the conduit for the books I’m most excited about. How can I not have a little bonus affection for it?

Anywho, we’re starting outside. To the right of the entrance, we have a recently renewed World War I memorial. Until the renovation, the memorial had just been a rock. At least, it had just been a rock for the past 40 years or so. According to Ken Finkel, that’s about when the plaques were stolen. The new signage is less enticing to thieves.

Large boulder with plaque placed in front of library
World War I memorial to the “Boys of Mount Airy” at the Lovett entrance

Behind the memorial, we can see some of my favorite new library furniture. On warmer days, patrons might enjoy their books on these fun and colorful chairs. The hammocks are outside the frame, but sitting on some enticing grass to the right of the building.

Let’s go inside

Even on a cloudy day, Lovett is bright and inviting. This seating area is right on the other side of the windows in the photo above. There are lots of spots with outlets for working, and cozy armchairs for lounging.

Photo from an armchair in the front of the library
The front seating area features both countertop seating and armchairs

Off to the left, there’s an open common space with booths, chairs, and tables. There’s also a study room, which patrons can reserve in advance.

In the background, you can see the Children’s Library section. The four 21st Century Libraries were all outfitted with spaces for children and teens. This space is colorful and expansive, with picture books as far as the eye can see. The children’s librarian hosts weekly story times. This is also one of the branches where kids can read to a non-judgmental, non-intimidating, very cute therapy dog.

Rows of children's picture books
Picture books line one wall of the children’s section. Outside the window, there’s a long reading porch for nice weather. (Despite appearances, there were actual kids there. I just tried to keep them out of the photos.)

I learned during a conversation with a delightful librarian that, while Lovett has a children’s librarian, they don’t have a teen librarian. They’re doing their best to create safe spaces for teens, but it’s a challenge. After all, most programs require people.

Round booth with sign for times for teen-only seating
Teens get their own tables on weekday afternoons

To that end, our enthusiastic local librarian is looking for teen-friendly volunteers. If you can believe it, I’ve never volunteered at the library. I thought that library volunteering would involve books, mostly, but there’s so much more! Here at Lovett, they’re looking for someone to come play X-Box with teens once a week. Yup. You can volunteer to play video games. They’d also be thrilled to have someone teach coding classes to teens once a month. To work with kids, you’ll need to be reliable and to get a child abuse history clearance. You’ll also need to be down with kids and libraries.

The Original Lovett Library

If you head upstairs, you’ll find the original Lovett Memorial Library space, which is now a meeting room. I chose this particular Saturday to visit Lovett because they’ve been hosting weekly meditation classes in that very meeting room. This workshop was in the Sahaja Yoga tradition, which I had no previous experience with. I learned something new and walked out feeling lighter than when I walked in.

While the original library is no longer filled with books, it retains some elements of its early years. One of my favorite features of this room is the fireplace. The fireplace was erected in the late 1800s, just like the rest of the original library, and it has tiles featuring quotes from authors. You know how you’ll often see quotes from authors that include the year the author was born and the year the author died? These dates were included on the tiles, and they’ve never been updated. This might lead an unsuspecting viewer to believe that some of our authors from the mid-19th century are still alive today.

Tiled fireplace with brass fixtures
This original fireplace from 1887 still sits in what is now a meeting room

Above the fireplace hangs a portrait of Thomas Robert Lovett. Lovett Memorial Library was erected in his honor by his sister, Charlotte Lovett Bostwick, who was also the aunt of one of the three founding members of the library. Those three were Reverend Simeon Hill, Mrs. Samuel Potter, and Miss Louisa Lovett. There were a whole lotta Lovetts involved in this library.

The rest of the second floor

The meeting room isn’t the only space on the second floor. This is also where you’ll find the quiet room. Yes, there’s a quiet room at the library!

The second floor also contains the computer lab. There are loads of reservable computers available. Looking for DVDs? You’ll find rows and rows lining the computer lab space.

Basically, there are lots of places to set up shop and camp out in this branch. Got an exam to study for, research to do, a programming language to learn, or a stack of books to read? Lovett’s got you covered. There are outlets if you bring your own computer, computers if you don’t have (or like) your own, and empty tables if you just need space to spread out.

The swag

Covers of The Personality Brokers and The Whispering Muse
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre and The Whispering Muse by Sjón

Remember how I mentioned that this is the branch where I pick up my holds? Well, I picked up a hold: The Personality Brokers, all about the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. Did you know that Myers and Briggs were a mother-daughter team? Or that Isabel Briggs graduated from Swarthmore College in 1919? Or that Isabel Briggs and her husband taught Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of Germantown? I didn’t know about any of this.

My second selection, which I haven’t started yet, is The Whispering Muse by Sjón. I chose this work of fiction because the author is Icelandic, and it’s cold outside. It’s a very scientific process.

The summary

Lovett Memorial Library is a sunny branch that’s great for lounging and working in. There aren’t a ton of books, but the space is open and community-oriented. Plus, there are loads of picture books and special programs for the kids. When the weather is nice, don’t miss the reading porch or the hammocks outside.

Mosaic on library with image of tree and the phrase "Everything you need to know you can learn under this tree"
This mosaic says it all.

Official JOTR Rating:

That’s it for this tour. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!

Do you frequent Lovett Memorial Library? Do you have any hot tips about this location? Let us know in the comments!

Our maiden voyage: Walnut Street West Library

“The United Nations Library”

Welcome sign hanging in atrium
Welcome to the library!

The Walnut Street West branch quietly stands on the southeast corner of 40th and Walnut. It’s a beautiful building, yet it’s easy to walk right by. It sits on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, blending in with academic buildings. The librarian we spoke with told us that he had been unable to find any other public library on a college campus, which makes it particularly stealthy. My friend Marta, who joined me on this outing, hadn’t even noticed it before.

I had never step foot inside. The building looks pretty tall from the outside — 3 stories at least — so the lowish ceilings on the first floor were a surprise. When we arrived, an enthusiastic host was welcoming teens for their regular sci-fi role playing game. The entrance is cozy, with a circulation desk and a few meeting rooms. When we looked up from the desk, we realized we were standing in an atrium.

The tour

The books and movies are all upstairs. Pass the copy equipment and step into an open, airy space. It was cold and dark at 5:30pm (thanks, winter), but it felt like a warm day outside in this branch. The yellow paint, the high, open rafters, and the cascading plants on the shelves combined for an other-seasonly experience.

Image of a library aisle shows the very high ceilings, open rafters, and plants on tops of shelves
So spacious and airy (photo by Marta Rusek)

When we asked a librarian for his favorite part about the branch, he first said the ceilings. Then he paused, and clarified that his real favorite part was how many international visitors come to the library. Partly because of the neighborhood and partly because of the university, library patrons come from all over the world. He referred to the Walnut Street West branch as the “United Nations library”. It’s not a huge branch, but it has a large foreign film section, a whole aisle of books in languages other than English, and an extensive language learning collection. This branch also hosts conversation groups for people learning English as a Second Language. 

CDs labeled in a variety of languages
Look at all the languages to learn!

The Walnut Street West branch has quite the delightful children’s section. It’s vibrant and inviting. I would have loved this space as a kid. Plus, there’s a tiny mailbox up front for kids to suggest books! 

This branch also has more nooks than I expected. There’s even a bean bag chair hiding in a corner.

Branch facts

The swag

When I told my friend Rana about my library adventures, she jokingly asked if the library had given me any swag. We laughed about t-shirts & bottle openers. Then I realized that the library gives me swag all the time. BOOK SWAG.

Covers of The Only Harmless Great Thing and What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
Walnut Street West book swag

I tried to keep my selections reasonable since I already had 9 books checked out. I picked up Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of stories first. It looked so inviting in the new fiction section. Plus the jacket says the author “was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and wherever else her father was stationed for work,” which went nicely with the United Nations Library theme. Then I noticed Brooke Bolander’s 89-page alternate history, and it was too weird to leave behind.

The summary

This is a great library for kids, people who want to learn new languages, and anyone looking to squash those winter blues.

Official JOTR Rating:

Have you visited the Walnut Street West branch? What’s your favorite thing about it? Let me know in the comments!

Who can get a library card?

First things first. We’re going on an adventure together! When you step foot in a library, you’re probably going to want the full experience. The books — or at the very least a book — will want to come home with you. Let’s get things squared away in advance, shall we?

Free Library of Philadelphia locations are open to the public, but you’ll need a library card to access a lot of what the library offers. Lots of people can get cards for free, and people from outside the area can pay for a card.

Free membership

There are two main groups for free membership.

  • People who live, work, go to school, or pay taxes in Philadelphia
  • Pennsylvania residents

$50/year membership

Don’t meet one of the above? People who live in other states can get a Philadelphia Free Library card for $50/year. This can be a bargain for anyone who uses everything the library has to offer.

Get your own library card

You can apply online, apply in person, or carry a paper application into a branch. Get all the details here.

Then get borrowing!