It is a plan so dastardly, so despicable, that state and local officials don’t want you to know about it. Pennsylvania has a plan in the works to gut the Philadelphia Library for the Blind, a vital service for the area’s visually impaired. The cover for the move is fiscal conservatism, but that makes no sense as the move may end up costing the state more money. The whole thing has the stench of political cronyism. Governor Tom Corbett and western PA Republicans want to move most of the operations out of Philadelphia to the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Pittsburgh, nestled in the Governor’s home county. The two libraries share funds allocated in the state library budget. This isn’t about saving money; it is about shifting the majority of those funds to Pittsburgh.
I understand that elections have consequences. I understand party patronage. I don’t understand making the 13,000 visually disabled people who regularly use the Library suffer because of political gamesmanship. The Philadelphia Library for the Blind lent out 600,000 Braille and recorded books last year. That is 20 percent of the entire circulation of the Philadelphia Library System.
There is another part of the plan that the state doesn’t want you to know about. Once the materials are taken from the Philadelphia Library for the Blind, transported across the state and set up in their new home at Carnegie, the state hopes to build a new facility in suburban Pittsburgh and move everything again. How exactly does that save money?
Or maybe the “cost-efficiency” is in the elimination of 24 of the 28 jobs at the Philadelphia Library for the Blind. Here they are union jobs. When they are transferred to Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t be. I have met several of the employees at the Library for the Blind. They do God’s work, and their patrons depend on their caring and expertise.
These employees have been stung by an efficiency report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. A report that is “one of the shoddiest and error ridden reports ever commissioned—a complete waste of taxpayer money,” according to Philadelphia State Representative Michael O’Brien in a blistering letter to the Secretary of Education. O’Brien wrote that the hand- picked, paid consultant who put together the report is “biased” and ignored data that proves the Philadelphia Library is run more efficiently. For instance, the Philadelphia Library received $1.7 million last year to service 13,000 visually disabled individuals at a cost of $130 a patron. Pittsburgh received $1.2 million for 8,000 patrons at a cost of $150 each.
That and other facts ignored by the consultant’s report prove that the employees at the Philadelphia Library for the Blind run a more cost-effective operation that is an intellectual lifeline to the area’s visually disabled. If the city unions want to take a stand against the slow but sure erosion of state and municipal workers’ unions, there is no better place than the library at 919 Walnut Street. You would be making a stand not only for the future of unions, not only for 24 employees who represent the best of government workers, not only for the future of the visually disabled in the Philadelphia area, but for history.
The Philadelphia Library for the Blind is the oldest such library in America, the place where recorded books were invented. It houses one of the largest collections of Braille and recorded books and periodicals in the country. We all deserve better than to watch this treasure disappear into the ugly vacuum of partisan politics.