What inspired you to take on your role as Strategy Coordinator at Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP)?
I started my career with the Free Library in 2005 and worked as an Adult/Teen Librarian at a number of branches throughout the city. In 2013, while at the South Philadelphia Branch, it was announced the library had partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to build a new facility at that location that would seek to integrate health and library services, as well as a recreation center, under one roof. With this impending closure it just so happened I was presented with the opportunity to join the library’s newly created Strategic Initiatives Department as Strategy Coordinator, a role that would allow me to gain new experiences and help position the library as a leading organization in the field.
What do you like most about it?
Having spent the better part of my Free Library career working in branch libraries throughout the city, I had a strong understanding of the daily activities and workloads associated with providing direct services to the public. On the other hand, my perspective was very much limited to my immediate work location and surrounding community. What’s great about my current role – and what I enjoy most – is the scope and diversity of the department’s work. We have to see the whole landscape of Free Library activities. In addition to ensuring the objectives of the library’s strategic plan are being met, the department is also tasked with innovation and the development of pilot programming. This is how our work with Soofa came about! In addition, and weaved throughout all we do, is a push to become a data driven organization and to better demonstrate the impact of our services.
Tell us about FLP? What do you love about it? What is one thing everyone should know about it?
The Free Library is composed of 60 locations citywide, including Parkway Central Library, three large regional libraries, 49 neighborhood libraries, three technology Hot Spots, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Regional Research and Operations Center, and The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Our reach extends into every community here in Philadelphia and what makes the organization so great is not only the people we serve, but our staff who are delivering these services each and every day. For instance our Literacy Enrichment Afterschool Program (LEAP) provides free, afterschool homework assistance to 3,400 students a day; we are the largest provider of free public WiFi in the city; nearly 50,000 Philadelphians participate each year in over 2,300 free programs; our new Culinary Literacy Center hosted more than 400 free programs for eaters of all interests and tastes; and we host more than 1,400 participants each month at our free ESL classes throughout the system. So, what’s the one thing everyone should know about the Free Library? Our name says it all. It’s FREE! Free programing! Free books to check out! Free ebooks and databases online! The list goes on and on and it’s all accessible to anyone with a library card.
If you have a free afternoon in FLP or Philadelphia at large, what do you like to do?
My Saturdays tend to be fairly open, and since I live in the South Philadelphia neighborhood, I like to wander around its famous Italian Market to shop for produce and other goodies. There’re a ton of gems throughout the city, so other favorite visits include Brickbat Books, La Colombe for coffee, record shopping at Beautiful World Syndicate, watching the world go by at the Singing Fountain on Passyunk Avenue, and catching up with friends at our local, Fountain Porter.
Why did you choose Soofa? What does it mean for you and for Philadelphia?
Beyond the duality of being both a bench and charging station, I was immediately drawn to the design of the product and potential as support for place-making initiatives. As mentioned previously, the Free Library is the largest provider of public WiFi in the city and for many of our users, their only source of internet or access to a computer. It’s not uncommon to see individuals logging on to WiFi outside our buildings before and after opening hours or sitting in cars, on our steps, or along the sidewalk to connect. Clearly, there was a need for upgraded seating, and what better way than by introducing the Soofa bench to our Cecil B. Moore and Lawncrest Libraries? We’ve started with three benches and hope to introduce more at other locations throughout the city.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to launch your Soofa Bench? How did you progress past this?
As with most public libraries throughout the country, available funding can often be in flux. We knew the benches would be positively received in the communities where they were placed and put to good use. It was just a matter of securing financial support, which we did! Since our three benches are being used heavily, we hope to make the case for their value to the public and find additional funds for additional benches.
What was the experience like when you told community members about their new bench?
We actually soft-launched the benches and let the communities find them on their own. Almost immediately all were seeing usage, from adults during the day to kids after school, and their popularity spread through the neighborhood via word of mouth. The best feedback we received was from an individual at our Cecil B. Moore Library. He had recently had the power to his home shut off and was using the benches each morning to recharge his family’s phones. What a powerful image and one that highlights the positive effects of Soofa within a community!
What do the residents in Philadelphia like the most about Soofa?
I think people are first drawn to the Soofa by its design, the pop of color and something beyond the norm. Of course, once they figure out the bench also serves as a charging station, and one that is solar powered, no less, it becomes something more. I would like to believe a sense of ownership takes place among users. As Philadelphia is a large, urban environment, we often struggle with graffiti and/or defacement of property. Interestingly, the benches all remain undisturbed, something of a testament to the power community pride!
If you had one wish to improve FLP or Philadelphia, what would it be?
This is such an exciting and vibrant time to be living in Philadelphia, and especially, working at the Free Library. We’re in the midst of our 21st Century Libraries Initiative, Building Inspiration, a project that will renovate and expand our Parkway Central Library and restore and modernize neighborhood libraries across the city. We’ve also embarked on an ambitious campaign, Read! by 4th, whose goal is to increase the number of children reading at grade level by the time they enter 4th grade. But to succeed on all fronts, we need to maximize the number of Free Library of Philadelphia card holders. So that’s my wish: a card in every hand! (And Soofa on every corner!)
Want to highlight your civic engagement in the Soofa Spotlight?
Contact Oliver Madden - Oliver@soofa.co