Behind William Penn's Record-Setting $25 Million Library Grant

The Free Library of Philadelphia has been around for over 120 years, but never in its history has it received a grant quite as big as the recent one from the William Penn Foundation. Last month, Penn announced a three-year $25 million grant that will pay for renovations at the Central Library on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and at five other library branches. And as Nonprofit Quarterly points out, this grant makes up about eight percent of the foundation’s three-year grantmaking budget.

So why libraries? Why now?

Laura Sparks recently stepped into the presidential role at the William Penn Foundation, and although she's not changing the direction of Penn grantmaking per se, she's already making a splash on the local giving scene. In particular, she’s been expressing her belief that libraries are central to life in Philadelphia. Several years ago, Philadelphia’s Free Library system was strapped for cash and threatening to close branches. Yet over half of the people who live in Philadelphia use public libraries in the city.

Related: Four Things to Know about William Penn's New Leader, Laura Sparks. And One Question

"We feel it can serve as an example for institutions in Philadelphia and the nation," Sparks said in a press release. "I think Philadelphia is leading the country in terms of trying to reimagine what libraries can do and how libraries can be responsive to community needs across the country."

Sparks has credited the leadership of Siobhan Reardon, Free Library President and Director, for inspiring her foundation to make such an enormous commitment. Not only is this $25 million grant the largest grant ever made to the Free Library, but it’s also the largest grant that the William Penn Foundation has ever given to anyone. The foundation sees the gift as a way to broaden its philanthropic reach by impacting the lives of local job seekers, children, entrepreneurs, small-business owners, new immigrants, and people with disabilities and medical needs.

The bulk of the grant, $18 million, will pay for renovating a few neighborhood libraries, and then $7 million of it will renovate the interior of the main Parkway Central Library. Parkway plans to tear out a lot of the outdated storage stacks, redesign the historic space, and add a new small business entrepreneurial center. William Penn is chipping in to pick up where the City of Philadelphia, City Council, the State of Pennsylvania, and private donors have left off.  So far, the City of Philadelphia has given $4.5 million and the City Council has given $2 million to library projects. So in comparison, Penn’s whopping $25 million makes a bold statement of support.

Sparks has latched onto Reardon’s vision to take city libraries into the 21st century and favor Internet-based resources as much as books. Each neighborhood in Philadelphia is unique, as some place higher value than others on information for immigrants, early childhood literacy, or small-business centers. Reardon has her ear to the ground and is building community partnerships to give residents what they're asking for.

"Books are the tools, computers are the tools – we have lots of tools," said Reardon. "What's important now is how the library staff and that community begin to blend."