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!

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!