Racism, Resignations, and Expired Hand Sanitizer at the Free Library of Philadelphia

July 27, 2020  —  Tagged as: cancel-culture, libraries

The Free Library of Philadelphia, or FLP, is Philly’s public library system, well-known for its community outreach, educational events, and promotion of literacy. Externally it’s the picture of a typically left-leaning institution, with author talks, event series, and resources centered around various elements of diversity and inclusion. The FLP has expressed its strong support for the Black Lives Matter movement multiple times, has hosted pro-BLM author discussions, and even has a dedicated BLM resource page. Internally, however, an ongoing battle rages over microaggressions and alleged patterns of discrimination against black employees.

On June 25th, 2020, a group of black employees at the Free Library of Philadelphia released an open letter that reignited a long-simmering debate over diversity and racism within the organization. Over the course of one tumultuous month, that debate resulted in the nominally “voluntary” resignation of the library’s director of twelve years, Siobhan Reardon. Was this simply accountability for a leader who allowed racism to thrive? Or was she another victim of cancel culture’s badly aimed battering ram? I dug into the past month’s worth of open letters, follow-up letters, and conflicts to find out.

The Letter

The June 25th open letter was penned by a group that refers to itself as Concerned Black Workers (henceforth referred to as CBW) at the Free Library of Philadelphia. It made accusations of longstanding racial bias that rattled the socially conscious library employees to their core. To many of them, it was a necessary illumination of the organization’s failure to protect black workers. I firmly disagree; it badly missed the mark in both concerns and demands. I’ll discuss each point in the letter one by one to explain why.

The CBW open letter reads as follows:

After meeting with several Black employees of the Library to share our experiences and concerns, we have determined that racial discrimination and disregard for Black safety, success, prosperity, and life at the Free Library will no longer be tolerated.

  • At the Library, Black staff routinely experience racial discrimination, harassment, microaggresions [sic], and other forms of workplace bias. (1)
  • Black staff at the Library are largely relegated to non-professional positions, including custodians, municipal guards, and library assistants, and therefore earn $7,533 less than the median salary, while white staff earn $12,012 more than the median salary. (2)
  • Black Americans “experience the highest overall mortality rates and the most widespread occurrence of disproportionate deaths” due to Covid-19. Our mortality rate is “2.3 times as high as the rate for whites and Asians, and 2.2 times as high as the Latino rate.” (3)
  • Armed white vigilante groups patrol areas of Philadelphia where Black staff are asked to return to work. (4)

Black staff at the Free Library of Philadelphia have serious concerns about our health and safety. Our pre-Covid work was on the frontlines, serving Philadelphians in a manner that requires face-to-face activity that makes us most vulnerable to infection. Now is the time for the Free Library to be anti-racist. We cannot return to business as usual and must find different and better ways to serve the public while keeping our staff and patrons safe. We are calling for accountability and action regarding the Free Library’s plan to protect Black workers as PA moves through the Yellow and Green phases.

We demand the following immediately, before any Black staff are required to report to any Free Library locations.

  1. A commitment to protecting Black lives on staff.
  2. A formal and transparent investigation of Black staff’s concerns regarding physically reporting to Free Library locations. Current decisions were made using a mis-leading survey.
  3. A plan, developed with Black staff, to provide Library services that take into account Black people’s increased Covid-19 infection and mortality rates.
  4. Support and accommodations for Black staff whose Library work makes them susceptible to racial violence.
  5. Provide Black staff the same opportunities to work from home that white staff have.
  6. We demand that staff with librarian degrees who work in management, executive, and specialty positions are redeployed to cover the shortages in staff due to Covid -19 and the lay off of seasonal employees. Most of whom are Black.

In a public statement, the Free Library wrote that it must “confront structural racism, both inside our organization as well as in all of our public-facing and public-service efforts,” and that “the work to root out institutional racism must occur before we can realize the organizational changes and the necessary healing that the Free Library needs.” Now is the time for Library leadership to listen to Black staff, root out institutional racism, and make good on your public statement that #BlackLivesMatter.

To a large extent, this is a letter expressing concerns about COVID safety measures. The Free Library of Philadelphia system has been closed to the public since March 15th, and the letter was written just before employees were being asked to return to work on the following Monday. It’s not clear to what extent library administrators had planned for COVID precautions at this point, so some concern was likely justified. One of the first things that struck me about the letter, however, was the framing of safety measures as a racial issue rather than a universal public health concern. “Now is the time for the Free Library to be anti-racist.” A return to work after quarantine can be anxiety-inducing for any worker, but there was a conscious choice here to narrowly focus on COVID protections through the lens of “anti-racism.” I’d assume that taking a more universal-good stance with the perspective of protecting everyone would be more productive and widely appealing, but that would mean missing out on the far more trendy racism bandwagon.

Each bullet point in the letter’s complaints links to an external source. The first, regarding racial discrimination at the FLP, is particularly fascinating, as it leads down a historical rabbit hole of racism accusations against the organization.

At the Library, Black staff routinely experience racial discrimination, harassment, microaggresions [sic], and other forms of workplace bias. (1)

The linked article is a Philadelphia Inquirer piece from early 2019, and it discusses a now-infamous FLP survey about diversity in the workplace. The December 2018 survey asked whether employees had experienced or witnessed bias in the workplace. 58 employees allegedly responded with stories of discrimination before the survey was taken down at the behest of Siobhan Reardon, the Free Library’s president and director. The article notes that “86 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced or observed racial bias at work. Nearly 83 percent said they had experienced racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or another microaggression.”

Wow, 86 percent! Sounds really bad, right? But here’s the thing: that’s not 86 percent of library employees, of which there are about 800 total. That’s 86 percent of the 58 survey respondents, or about 50 responses. That’s a little over six percent of the the library employee population. It’s also crucial to recognize that people who believe they’ve experienced discrimination are much more likely to respond to an optional survey about it, so you’re bound to get a pretty intense sampling bias. Bandying about an ominous-sounding 86% statistic and letting readers assume that’s the percentage of library employees who experience discrimination is pretty damn misleading.

Granted, that’s not to say that there weren’t necessarily genuine problems brought up in the survey responses. 50 reports of bigotry are still significant and worthy of investigation. The librarians’ union later revived the survey, and it yielded several dozen more responses: “Survey respondents described instances of homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, biased hiring and placement practices, and a tedious reporting process that ended with little or no outcome,” says the Inquirer article. The responses don’t seem to be available publicly, but the Inquirer says it obtained a copy of them. Given the sheer number of responses (almost 100 in the second run), I would imagine there are at least a few accusations with merit in the mix. But let’s take a look at the two complaints that the Inquirer journalist decided to highlight:

One supervisor, a white woman, told someone she wished she were black and gay because she thought she would be more promotable, a respondent wrote, according to a copy obtained by The Inquirer.

Another wrote: “During my implicit bias training I sat next to some who made it very clear they thought the training was worthless and that they did not agree with what was said.”

Reading these, I was underwhelmed. Are these the best you’ve got? These are the complaints you choose to give as showcase examples of a racist environment? One, a white woman implies that minorities get promoted more, which could be true in a very left-leaning environment that encourages affirmative action. Yes, it’s insensitive to minorities who do have to struggle to be promoted, and a rather unprofessional thing to say in a work environment. But is it really racist? I’m not so sure. What I do know is that if a black woman had said “I wish I was white because I’d be more promotable,” absolutely no one would have an issue with that statement, because it’s accepted woke orthodoxy that the system is biased in favor of white people. But to suggest that minorities are promoted more in a particular environment is to threaten the idea that white people are the oppressors and minorities are the oppressed fighting for justice.

And then there’s the second featured complaint, which almost made me choke on my water from laughing: someone dared to say an implicit bias training was worthless and they didn’t agree with it. OH NO.

I’m staunchly opposed to implicit bias trainings, and I think they’re idiotic and ineffective. Am I bigoted now too? (Apparently, yes.) There is little to no evidence that implicit bias trainings have any significant positive effect. Sometimes the techniques used in such trainings, like calling attention to racial stereotypes, actually end up reinforcing the stereotypes in participants’ minds instead. The very concept of implicit bias itself is fraught with problems. It’s an incredibly fuzzy concept that can’t actually be measured or tested (the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, has well-known major problems and can be easily gamed). And yet someone voicing objections to an implicit bias training is given as an example of discrimination. What’s extra amusing is that from this complaint, we know that the FLP has already subjected its employees to implicit bias trainings, so if the protesting employees still insist it’s a bigoted environment, they’ll have to acknowledge that implicit bias trainings don’t work!

With so many library staff claiming experiences with discrimination, I want to believe that there were real instances of straight-up bigotry listed in the survey responses, but the floppy examples offered in the Inquirer article make me doubt the quality of the batch as a whole. If those two anemic examples were the crown jewels, what do the rest of them look like?

In any case, FLP president Siobhan Reardon made a statement calling the reports “deeply concerning” and emphasized the library’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The situation caught the eye of Philadelphia city Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who professed herself “very disturbed” by the survey and by the lack of disciplinary action taken by Reardon in a case where an employee made an unspecified “reprehensible” comment. At an April 2019 budget meeting for the library, Bass took the opportunity to slam Reardon for her perceived failures in the areas of diversity and inclusion. A small group of protesters watched, occasionally calling out and carrying signs that read “Not Enough” and “No Excuses.”

“You need to do more, you need to do better, or we need to get someone who is going to do more and do better,” Bass told Reardon. She brought up the lack of disciplinary action for a white senior manager who allegedly made a discriminatory remark. Reardon responded that an investigation had found that the manager hadn’t meant to be offensive and didn’t have any prior record of discriminatory action. Bass was dissatisfied with that decision, Reardon was unmoved, and Bass then “suggested a leadership change.” Another councilwoman asked about the FLP’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which was approved by the board in 2017 but still had no members and hadn’t met yet.

The president and director was under fire, but she professed a commitment to diversity and inclusion and was able to keep her job—for the moment. The FLP continued to give the council regular progress reports on the situation as it made plans to jump-start the Diversity and Inclusion Committee and hire a full-time Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

Fast-forward back to June 2020, when the Concerned Black Workers (CBW) are offering this historical context as evidence that “Black staff routinely experience racial discrimination, harassment, microaggresions [sic], and other forms of workplace bias” at the library. After digging through the history, I’m still not convinced that discrimination at the library is “routine.” Existent, potentially. But there’s no public evidence of any significant amount of racism being pervasive at the FLP.

While the first complaint of workplace discrimination likely has some basis in truth, the second claim in the CBW’s letter has not a single leg to stand on.

Black staff at the Library are largely relegated to non-professional positions, including custodians, municipal guards, and library assistants, and therefore earn $7,533 less than the median salary, while white staff earn $12,012 more than the median salary. (2)

I was particularly amused at the term “relegated,” as if the FLP Board of Trustees takes a random group of people to be employees and then sends white people to be librarians and black people to be custodians. Clearly there is no personal responsibility or choice involved here, it’s all about the whims of the evil library dictators. Relegated, huh? How exactly did you end up in the job you’re in? Which job did you apply for? Did you apply for higher-level positions? Are you qualified for them? The entitlement is both laughable and disturbing at the same time. You don’t get to say “I should get paid the same as people who are more qualified than me and have better jobs than me, because otherwise it’s racism.” What kind of planet do you live on where you think that makes sense?

In the very article the CBW links to, a Philadelphia Tribune piece about the FLP’s efforts towards equity, board member Chris Arlene states that employees in the same roles earn the same salaries. Great! Where’s the discrimination? He goes on to say that most of the FLP librarians are white woman, and that “there’s a requirement around the [Master’s of Library Science] that’s an industry issue and something that the library is trying to work on.” Yeah, a requirement around a Master’s of Library Science kind of makes sense for a librarian. But we’re trying to lower standards in hopes that’ll attract more people of color to these jobs? Bit insulting, no?

The CBW’s third claim addresses the impact of COVID by race:

Black Americans ‘experience the highest overall mortality rates and the most widespread occurrence of disproportionate deaths’ due to Covid-19. Our mortality rate is “2.3 times as high as the rate for whites and Asians, and 2.2 times as high as the Latino rate.” (3)

This is true. It is unfortunate. However…how is pointing this out productive? I’m sorry, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and everyone is scared. No one knows what they’re doing or whether they’ll die from the virus if they catch it. It’s not the time to play a game of Oppression Olympics and emphasize that you’re more of a victim than everyone else who is also at risk. The smartest move here would’ve been to rally all the FLP employees they could find, regardless of skin color, and present a unified front asking library administration for specific COVID protection plans. There’s no way the FLP has the time, resources, or inclination to put together race-specific COVID prevention plans, and doing so would be ludicrous! Just make one really good plan that protects everyone.

The fourth and final complaint in the letter is as follows:

Armed white vigilante groups patrol areas of Philadelphia where Black staff are asked to return to work. (4)

It links to an article that describes said white vigilantes wielding baseball bats, ripping up protesters’ signs, and yelling slurs. That is alarming indeed. Interestingly, it fails to mention why the vigilantes appeared in the first place: as a response to the widespread rioting and looting that had spread through the city along with protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Almost 1000 stores were looted across Philadelphia, and as in other cities, the police were either not capable or not permitted to put a stop to it. The vigilantes consequently decided to “defend their communities” and restore law and order, if the police could not. To be clear, this doesn’t justify their bad actions and it doesn’t make them good people. But it’s important to recognize that the narrative is not “the poor peaceful protesters were being peaceful and then weapon-wielding white men came out of nowhere to threaten them!” For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Of course, context doesn’t do anything to alleviate the CBW’s fears of potential violence, and it’s likely there are a few actual racists scattered in among the vigilantes, so their concern could be justified here. At the same time, this is another case where anyone might be scared to walk to work, when there are not only potentially violent vigilantes but potentially violent rioters, neither of whom are likely to do a good job of distinguishing between foe and bystander. So once again, a more universal approach to concerns about commuting amidst unrest might have been more effective than a purely race-based framing.

That concludes the letter’s complaints. What about the letter’s demands and proposed solutions? Let’s review them each briefly.

  1. A commitment to protecting Black lives on staff.

What does this mean, practically speaking? I imagine the FLP aims to protect lives on staff in general. Even if library leadership did repeat these particular words, it would mean nothing. What specific actions do the CBW want?

  1. A formal and transparent investigation of Black staff’s concerns regarding physically reporting to Free Library locations. Current decisions were made using a mis-leading survey.

It’s not clear what “misleading survey” is referenced here, but I’d think it’d be easy enough to evaluate the actual risk of employees being attacked on their way to work. The peak of looting/rioting and the subsequent appearance of armed vigilantes happened in early June (the article they cited is from June 4th), so the worst of it had likely passed by the time the letter was released on June 25th.

  1. A plan, developed with Black staff, to provide Library services that take into account Black people’s increased Covid-19 infection and mortality rates.

Again, it’s unrealistic and unproductive to attempt to make COVID-19 a racial problem rather than a universal one. For libraries and institutions, basic universal prevention measures are enough of a challenge. They absolutely don’t have the time or resources to waste on building race-specific plans.

  1. Support and accommodations for Black staff whose Library work makes them susceptible to racial violence.

Whoa, Nelly. Worries about the commute to work are one thing, but the library work itself making employees “susceptible to racial violence?” We’re talking about jobs in a library. Are there racist library patrons roaming the stacks to hurl hardcovers at minorities?

  1. Provide Black staff the same opportunities to work from home that white staff have.
  2. We demand that staff with librarian degrees who work in management, executive, and specialty positions are redeployed to cover the shortages in staff due to Covid -19 and the lay off of seasonal employees. Most of whom are Black.

These two demands are nothing short of nonsensical. You can’t pretend that the type of job makes no difference to its requirements, nor claim the benefits of other jobs without having taken on the downsides (e.g. having to get a Master’s degree). Allowances for working from home are not given based on skin color, but on the type of job. A library custodian simply cannot work from home. If you think your job responsibilities can be performed from home, then argue on the basis of your responsibilities, not your skin color. As for the idea that staff with librarian degrees be “redeployed to cover the shortages in staff,” it seems to demand that a librarian with a Master’s degree fill the duties of a janitor or security guard. Nice try. That’s not how professional roles or responsibilities work.

The CBW letter may have been based on valid concerns about the library’s COVID precautions. But in its execution, it twists potentially genuine concerns about the virus into narrow and misguided complaints centered around race. It flails in a fog of vague victimhood that makes a stronger statement about envy than about actual racial inequity. The CBW fails to recognize the role of its own career choices, or the value of unity in a pandemic, and thus misses the mark on both problems and solutions.

And yet. If you’ve spent any amount of time in left-leaning spaces, you’ll already know that none of the letter’s shortcomings matter. It was written by a group of minorities alleging racial injustice, so many people held up its claims as gospel. For better or worse, the letter was a grenade that rattled the progressive FLP staff into action. The demands of the first letter were only the beginning.

The Impact

It’s been difficult to piece together the exact sequence of the events that followed the initial release of the letter, but I’ve reconstructed the timeline as best I can based on news articles, public documents, and tweets. The CBW letter came out on Thursday, June 25th, a few days before library workers were expected to return to work on Monday, June 29th. By Saturday June 27th, the Free Library had given a statement to local news acknowledging the letter and concurring that black staff were statistically at higher risk from COVID: “While we have put into place safety measures developed with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health as our staff begins to return to our physical locations next week, we have reached out to the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library in order to work together on issues of equity and matters that impact their health and safety.”

At this point, just a few days after the letter, FLP leadership had already responded to the CBW in an attempt to collaborate on solutions. The response letter came from two members of the Board of Trustees, Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis and Chris Arlene, who are also co-chairs of the Free Library’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. (You’ll note that the DEI Committee was properly organized and staffed after the confrontation about it in 2019.) They opened by validating the CBW’s concerns:

We have read your open letter closely and share deep and genuine concern for the issues raised in it. As members of the Board of Trustees and co-chairs of the board’s DEI Committee, we remain absolutely committed to confronting and eradicating any form of institutionalized racism at the FLP. Moreover, we acknowledge the concerns of racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19. We also share your sense of urgency for the safety of all of our workers and patrons at this critical juncture of the reopening process.

Arlene and Olanipekun-Lewis go on to describe current pro-diversity efforts spearheaded by the DEI committee, board of trustees, and a recently hired consulting firm called DiverseForce. They emphasize that DiverseForce’s investigative findings will allow them to “affect structural change” within the FLP, that they intend to work closely with the new DEI executive once that person is hired, and that they are working with the executive team on safety plans to “ensure a safe and equitable process for reopening.” The board members also offer to meet with the CBW and hear their concerns:

Finally, we believe that now is the time to make substantive changes at the FLP. In order to discuss our commitment to the challenges that we face, we are open to engaging important stakeholders like the Concerned Black Workers and hearing from you in a manner that makes sense at this time. We believe that the pathway forward is difficult, but we also know that the work ahead will be facilitated by listening, learning and holding ourselves and FLP leadership accountable.

A meeting between the board members and the CBW might have been the first step towards progress and resolution. But the CBW were not satisfied by the response, and they declined to meet. Their new letter response would not appear until July 9th—and by then, their demands would have escalated. But more on that in a moment.

It’s important to note that certain members of the CBW later claimed that the board had never responded to their letter. In late July, one FLP employee and activist stated, “The board of trustees for the library did not reach out to us.” This is childish wordplay at best and blatant lies at worst. Because the group was not offered a meeting with the full board, only with two board members and co-chairs of the DEI Committee, perhaps they decided it could be loosely interpreted as a lack of outreach. Multiple news outlets regurgitated this claim, seemingly without any attempt at verification. The fact is that Arlene and Olanipekun-Lewis were clearly both members of the board and responding on behalf of the board in their capacities as DEI Committee co-chairs. (Olanipekun-Lewis, by the way, is a black woman.) CBW members’ choice to ignore this illustrates that the activists are more than happy to bend or break the truth in order to yield a suitable narrative.

In any case, FLP workers returned to work on Monday, June 29th, as planned. When they arrived, they discovered that the library’s COVID precautions were less than ideal. Some employees found expired hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, dating back as far as 2018. Cleaning materials were in short supply, they complained on a library worker email list, as were PPE such as face masks: “A bag of cheap cloth masks (face diapers) – too small, and no other supplies. What the heck am I supposed to do?” Another employee complained about coming in to discover a broken air conditioner.

The board moved swiftly to organize a town hall the next day, Tuesday June 30th, and reassure the disgruntled employees, but it was too late. Unionized workers had already launched a petition lambasting library leadership, lodging a vote of no confidence in director Siobhan Reardon and her executive team, and demanding that Reardon be removed from her position. The petition listed six primary complaints, ranging widely in topic but ultimately centering around leadership’s alleged incompetence. I’ll address each.

We are alarmed by the utter lack of written safety protocols or communicated best practices from our administration during the Covid-19 pandemic and the re-opening of our libraries and offices—after having more than 100 days to do so!

It’s clear from the reports of scarce PPE and expired hand sanitizer and disinfectant that the FLP wasn’t fully prepared for COVID precautions, so it’s not surprising that they didn’t have written safety protocols either. I’m sympathetic to the workers’ concerns in this regard, but I’m also sympathetic to library leadership. Yes, they should have been better prepared, and should have built out a more comprehensive safety plan for employees’ return to work. But this isn’t a failing that’s unique to the FLP—they’re far from the only library that’s struggled with safely reopening in the age of COVID—nor is it limited to libraries. The entire United States should have been better prepared for the pandemic, but with few exceptions, all our institutions have stumbled and floundered. Not even hospitals have adequate PPE for their medical staff! It’s not a good thing, but the reality is that everyone is struggling to catch up. To hold the Philadelphia library system to a higher standard seems unreasonable.

Regarding the expired and/or lacking supplies, library leadership quickly apologized and promised remediation at the town hall on June 30th. An occupational safety administrator explained that the expired supplies had been in place prior to the library shutdown in March and hadn’t yet been replaced, but that fresh supplies would be arriving shortly: “Measures are underway, today, yesterday and throughout the week, to supply branches with updated cleaning supplies,” he promised. He also announced the delivery of 600 more face shields in the following weeks, in addition to acrylic barriers. This quick response and commitment to obtaining more cleaning supplies and PPE indicate that the FLP, despite its failings, was at least making a strong effort to create a safer working environment.

The petition’s next complaint referenced the CBW’s letter:

We are disgusted by the continued lip-service and insufficient action of this administration concerning racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion within our work spaces and libraries!

During the June 30th town hall, Siobhan Reardon took time to address employees about diversity and the CBW letter. (This is further contradiction to the claim that Reardon and the board never responded.) Reardon asserted that despite COVID-triggered layoffs of seasonal employees (many of whom were black), the FLP was “still a minority-majority organization.” She referenced the CBW’s letter, as well as the board’s response letter, and noted that the CBW had refused to meet. Despite this, she assured employees that she was working with the board on a further response, and said she would ask the board’s DEI Committee to host a town hall on diversity and inclusion issues in the future. Finally, she emphasized that no one who signed the petition for her removal would face any sort of retaliation: “I would assume you would think I am a bigger person than that.”

As for the petition’s overall allegation that the administration had not done enough to combat “racism” at the library, see my earlier rebuttals to the CBW letter. There is simply no compelling evidence that the FLP is a racist environment in any significant way. Moving on.

We are frustrated by a completely unresponsive and unproductive Human Resources department!

Okay? Join the club. I don’t think I’ve ever met an employee who thinks their HR department is fantastically efficient. The petitioners complain of lost paperwork, questions that go unanswered, and “slow and inefficient hiring and payment processes.” That sounds like every HR department I’ve ever interacted with.

I bet getting the library director fired will solve the problem, though.

We are furious about the lack of and misallocation of funding over 12+ years for staff to run our vital library programs and services!

I don’t know enough about the FLP’s funding allocations to fully rebut this point, but I can address this piece at least: “The past decade of austerity was largely funded by a shift away from family-sustaining entry-level library assistant jobs, towards a cruel reliance on part-time seasonal labor disproportionally consisting of Black and Brown workers.” It sounds like the library shifted to hiring seasonal workers because it freed up money for other projects, which is not inherently a “misallocation.” That sounds like a pretty classic business move. They also complain about funds being spent on “ballooning Executive level positions”—oh, like the new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer everyone has campaigned so hard for?

I can’t say for sure that funds have not been misallocated over the past years of Reardon’s leadership, but what I can say is that fund allocation is fundamentally incredibly subjective. What one person believes is crucial to the organization’s flourishing could be worthless to another. Money decisions are not easy, and to think there is a “correct” allocation is painfully myopic.

We are embarrassed by the lack of digital equity planning and the absence of technology growth!

Oh boy, “digital equity.” We definitely needed another woke term for “people having access to technology.” Regardless, this is another “join the club” complaint. Libraries are notorious for lagging behind technologically, often due to a combination of less technologically savvy staff and lack of funding to purchase shiny new tech toys. It’s unfortunate, but extraordinarily common. Want it changed? How about making some incremental, reasonable suggestions for technological advancement instead of trying to topple the director like she’s an offensive statue?

We are appalled that Free Library administrators let our community libraries become a safe haven for the National Guard when they occupied our City!

It’s not surprising that there would be a large chunk of shared population between FLP activists and the ACAB crowd. “The National Guard, along with the Philadelphia Police Department, are actors and symbols of oppression against residents raising their voices against racial injustice.” The National Guard and Philadelphia Police Department are ALL OPPRESSORS! There is no possible way that any of them are trying to protect the city and its everyday inhabitants, or that they’re attempting to restore the peace after widespread riots and looting.

This is not to say that law enforcement are always the Good Guys, or that they haven’t engaged in brutality or unconscionable actions. But I maintain that they are fundamentally good, well-intentioned, and important entities that need reform, if anything, rather than rejection or dissolution. The vast majority of the country seems to agree: a recent Gallup poll found that 85% percent of respondents were opposed to actually abolishing the police. Probably because that would be an absolutely idiotic move. Reform, yes. Abolish, no.

The FLP activists are entitled to object to the National Guard’s presence in their library and city, which was understandably controversial. Reasonable people can disagree on whether they should have been called into cities at all. But to see the National Guard and the police as unequivocal “symbols of oppression” is typical extremist hyperbole. The petitioners also claim that “National Guard troops and cops beat, tear gassed, and held Library workers at gunpoint.” Bad if true, but citation needed, please and thank you.

The petition ends with several demands, including the insistence on Reardon’s immediate removal:

We call on the Board of Trustees to end immediately Siobhan Reardon’s presidency of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The process of seeking a new director should begin, and representatives from [the librarian’s union] AFSCME DC47 Local 2187 should be involved in every step of the selection of the next director.

By June 30th, the petition had accumulated 1,288 signatures. Most of them were not library employees, as the petition is open to any signatories and welcomes “supporters” and “friends” as well as library workers. As of June 30th, 198 of the signatories self-identified as library employees, which is still a significant proportion of the total library workforce. The petition’s signature count did not grow much farther from the initial burst, and currently sits at 1,921.

The Cascade

At this point, news of the upheaval at the FLP was spreading. Authors who had planned events with the library began to cancel, professing solidarity with the CBW. Well-known novelist Colson Whitehead was one of the first to back out on July 2nd, followed by a cascade of other cancellations. The irony is that many of the cancelled events were focused on diversity and anti-racism, which tells me that performativity speaks louder than any professed desire to “educate.” Teen organizers of the FLP’s annual Social Justice Symposium followed suit, concluding that cancelling their social justice workshops to stand with the CBW was “the best way to move toward radical change in the Free Library system.”

Around the same time, CBW workers started an Instagram account for “bringing awareness to the unchecked systematic racism and bias at the Free Library of Philadelphia.” There are a only a handful of posts. They’re worth skimming—not for any evidence of systemic racism, but for the showcasing of petty office politics and the attempt to shoehorn workplace sniping into the narrative of racism. Most of the posts seem to operate on the logic that if an unpleasant event or interaction happens to a black person, it’s because of racism. There is no other possible explanation.

One of the most laughable posts describes an incident where the author accidentally used someone else’s coffee cream. The owner of the cream confronted the inadvertent thief, said they should ask before touching others’ things, and subsequently placed labels on their food as well as signs on the refrigerator reminding employees not to take others’ food. CLEARLY A RACIST. Definitely nothing to do with the fact that people get notoriously petty about food in the shared office refrigerator. Fights over food in shared refrigerators are a tale as old as time (well, as old as the refrigerator). To use this as an example of “systemic racism” is the funniest, furthest reach I’ve read all day.

Again: this is the encapsulation of the “racism” experienced at the Free Library? Less than a dozen posts complaining about lack of promotions, feeling undervalued, having to do extra tasks for higher-ups, and not having enough control over projects? News flash, this is pretty damn universal. It has little to nothing to do with race. Almost every employee is dissatisfied in some way with their role, responsibilities, recognition, or lack of promotion. Just ask the white employee mentioned earlier who wished she was black and gay so that she’d be more promotable. She shouldn’t have said it, of course, but it illustrates that she too feels undervalued and hasn’t been offered a promotion. Because almost everyone, regardless of race, feels that way while working at large institutions.

In summary, there is nothing in the Instagram account that proves the presence of racism or bigotry at the FLP.

On July 9th, the CBW released a second letter. In this missive, they abandon any specific concerns about COVID precautions and push full steam ahead on getting Siobhan Reardon fired. (Was it ever really about COVID?) They reiterate their six demands from the first letter, as well as their rejection of a meeting:

As of today, we have only been offered a meeting, and not one with the full board. That said, we did not ask for a meeting. We asked for action taken to address the above issues.

I’d like to take a moment to marvel at the sheer shamelessness of writing an open letter of complaints and then refusing to meet with the board once they respond. When I read that the CBW had declined the offered meeting, any thought I’d entertained that that the group was acting in good faith flew into the trash faster than expired hand sanitizer. Let’s assume for a moment that the FLP really is a racist work environment. If that’s the case, the first step towards remediation would be to talk through specific examples and specific solutions with management. If you complain about something, and the entity you’re complaining about offers to talk, you fucking talk to them—assuming you have any interest whatsoever in finding solutions. But the CBW is all too clearly not interested in compromise or realistic answers. Like petulant children throwing a tantrum, they want exactly what they asked for, without any discussion or compromise or even clarification. “It’s not our job to educate you,” they might say. Actually, it is. If you’re making demands, the burden of proof and of suggesting solutions is on YOU. You’d better be ready to explain and defend your demands, and to find middle ground where necessary.

The CBW was never going to get what they wanted, partially because some of their demands are ridiculous, and partially because they refuse to talk about exactly what they want. I suspect they don’t know themselves. In these circumstances, any action the FLP took wouldn’t have been enough. So, in the absence of the CBW’s every whim being fulfilled, they wanted someone to suffer for it. Someone’s job had to burn. And that someone was Siobhan Reardon.

The CBW’s second letter asserts that “The wider world is losing patience with non-actionable steps towards anti-racism, and thus the library is losing money from donors, respect with professional networks and organizations, reputation in the press and social media, programming opportunities with authors, and the trust of patrons.” They lay this squarely at the feet of Reardon. To them, she’s a Marie Antoinette, squandering the library’s money and tolerating racism and nibbling cake in her tower, and their determination to hustle her to the guillotine is only growing.

They insist that the FLP must cut Reardon loose in order to move forward with making the library anti-racist: “The Board of Trustees must choose Black lives or be complicit in upholding white supremacy.” Fascinating how “choosing Black lives” is equated to firing a director who isn’t even a racist, but has committed the cardinal sin of not demonstrating her anti-racist bona fides emphatically enough in her leadership.

On July 15th, Reardon responded with a letter of her own addressed to the CBW. Activists quickly pounced on the fact that the document properties reveal that the original document’s owner is part of a crisis management firm. They scoffed and snickered and took this as heinous evidence that Reardon wasn’t taking the demands seriously. I find this reaction odd, as the hiring of a crisis management firm demonstrates the opposite: an acknowledgement that the situation is quite serious. It’s not unusual or even a bad thing for an embattled professional to hire a crisis management firm, and with the raging excesses of cancel culture, I suspect it’ll become increasingly common. The last revision of the letter is attributed to Siobhan Reardon, so it’s clear she was still involved in the letter’s phrasing.

The letter begins by reiterating the FLP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as acknowledging its shortcomings:

The Free Library of Philadelphia is committed to being an anti-racist environment, one free of discrimination, bias and microaggressions and where our Black employees and other employees of color know they belong. We began this journey years ago, but we have not always gotten it right, and I recognize there is much work to be done.

Reardon goes on to agree that black and brown people are at higher risk from COVID, and that “their health and safety are what matter most.” (Quite the statement, prioritizing people’s safety by race, but it’s likely a desperate attempt to salvage her job. Spoiler: it didn’t work.) She also assures the CBW that the library is “working to address some of the systemic issues,” and again mentions the investigation in progress from consulting firm DiverseForce.

Needless to say, the activists were not appeased. On July 17th, a new group penned another letter in support of the CBW and in opposition to Reardon. This group was comprised of non-black FLP employees who wanted to express their allyship with the CBW. They accuse library leadership of avoiding a point-by-point response to the CBW’s demands. This is true, but a point-by-point discussion likely would have taken place during the meeting that the CBW emphatically refused.

The CBW allies accuse Reardon of “outsourcing…care and concern for Black lives” by enlisting the help of the crisis management firm. Still a pretty silly and pointless gripe. Otherwise, the letter affirms complete support of the CBW and its demands, and echoes the call for Reardon to be fired. It currently has about 237 signatures, ostensibly all from non-black FLP staff.

At some point during this process—I can’t be sure exactly when—Reardon deleted her Twitter account, presumably because she was facing considerable criticism through the platform. It was clear that the barrage of accusations and calls to step down would not stop.

On Sunday July 19th, Board of Trustees Chair Pamela Dembe and Vice Chair Barbara Sutherland responded to the activists’ letter and committed to action on the CBW’s concerns, but also said that they “remain committed to the leadership of Siobhan Reardon.” The defense of Reardon was controversial. About a dozen trustees and board members sent an email in response stating that any endorsement of Reardon had not been approved by the board, and calling for a planned board meeting about Reardon’s leadership to be moved earlier. The library’s consulting firm DiverseForce also sent an email stating that the defense of Reardon had been against their recommendations. Dembe maintained that she had been given the authority by the board to make the statement. She also confirmed to the media that Reardon was considering stepping down in the face of immense pressure: “There’s a lot of people calling for her to resign. She loves the library dearly and is thinking about what’s best for the library.”

The pressure to resign was not limited to FLP activists, employees, or observers. As you’ll recall, Councilwoman Cindy Bass is no fan of Reardon’s, and made calls for her resignation back in 2019. She renewed those criticisms publicly. Mayor Jim Kenney was also following the CBW situation and was reportedly pushing Reardon to resign. One anonymous source told the Inquirer that although Kenney couldn’t fire Reardon directly, he was considering taking control of the FLP’s assets or creating a city-employed role that would override FLP leadership if Reardon didn’t “do the right thing.”

The Toppling

After weeks of turmoil and activists baying for blood, the embattled Siobhan Reardon finally announced her resignation on Thursday July 23rd. At this point, she had been director of the Free Library of Philadelphia for over twelve years. Incidentally, she had been the very first woman to serve in this role. Her profile as director and president is already gone from the FLP website.

Although Reardon faced widespread and heated criticism, she was not without allies. Upon her departure, at least five members of the board of the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation also resigned in protest (the FLP Foundation is a separate organization from the Board of Trustees and largely works in fundraising). Board Chair Pamela Dembe indicated that more resignations may follow.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kenney made a statement indicating that he appreciated Reardon’s years of work but that he stood with the library’s black employees, and that “after hearing calls for reform from Library employees and the public, it is clear that a change in leadership is necessary during these unprecedented times.” He also noted that the FLP Foundation resignations were unfortunate, but that “all supporters must be bought into a future library that stands for racial equity.”

After months of graffiti and activists yanking on the ropes, this metaphorical statue has toppled. Congratulations, CBW. What has been achieved for the Free Library of Philadelphia? Now that Reardon has been railroaded, have the problems of the library magically been solved? The activists would argue that her departure was the necessary removal of an obstacle. They celebrated Reardon’s downfall briefly, but they’ve already moved on. Mere hours after Reardon’s resignation, they announced their next target as Board Chair Pamela Dembe, who had spoken up in Reardon’s defense. “Pamela Dembe has chosen to work against the concerns of the Free Library community and has lost the trust of Black staff before with her anti-Black statements and actions, as a judge, within the wider community.”

Dembe says she’s not considering resigning at this time, and briefly called out the unproductivity of cancel culture: “I don’t think that ‘cancel culture’ is doing a lot of good in very many instances. That being said, having some opposition is often a good thing. It makes you think, makes you move outside your comfort zone.”

The Free Library of Philadelphia has its flaws. Perhaps there is even some racism there. But the CBW’s exaggerated demands, refusals to meet with the board, and insistence on driving out the director have accomplished nothing. I doubt that the next director will do much better than Reardon, especially under the scrutiny and pressure of the CBW and associated activists. They’ll tire of the next director soon enough. They’ll keep finding scapegoats, channeling misguided rage like bulls charging after scraps of bright fabric. With every victory, they’ll believe they’ve done something for the world. And when they grow weary of pulling down statues and tilting at windmills, they’ll wonder why they’re still unhappy; why nothing has changed; why they’re still dissatisfied with their lives.

Must be those racist librarians.


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