The job of establishing a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in the Ogontz neighborhood of the city was a tough, time-consuming process, but one that the late Philadelphia City Councilman David Cohen never abandoned. As such, the Ogontz community honored the library's longtime champion — who died Oct. 3, 2005, at the age of 90 — by bestowing his name on the branch he brought to the region.
The newly named David Cohen Ogontz Branch was dedicated last month, and is currently one of the heaviest circulation branches in the entire city. In 2006, some 35,371 items were borrowed from the branch, 86,258 people went through its turnstiles, and 2,788 people attended 173 different programs, according to Free Library president and director Elliot L. Shelkrot.
"It took 36 years," said the library's branch manager, Lynn Ruthrauff, for the new branch to finally be built in 1997. The prevailing sentiment throughout the city was that the area just didn't need a library; the project "wasn't a high priority." But Cohen, the last Jewish member of City Council, soldiered on.
Shelkrot has been at the helm of the city's library system for 20 years, and he said that Cohen was in the midst of crusading for the branch when Shelkrot first took up his leadership position: "Many years before I came to town, he was instrumental in pushing to have this library."
More than a decade ago, the councilman set up a meeting with Shelkrot and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. "It was a time when [the city] was pulling out of near-bankruptcy," said the director, but Cohen still pushed for the branch, despite the financial difficulties. The three men discussed a way to make the library a reality, but do it cheaply and effectively. They used a library in East St. Louis as a model, which emphasized an efficient allocation of space and resources.
The persistence paid off: "It turned out pretty well," attested Shelkrot. "It's a very busy library."
The branch touts its after-school programs, computers for job-seekers and events to help patrons create effective résumés, said Ruthrauff. Roughly 500 people walk through its turnstiles each day, according to the branch manager.
The library also holds immigration green-card programs, tutoring sessions and poetry readings, added Ruthrauff, who said "it's very much a community service neighborhood focal point."
According to Ruthrauff, local residents would not have access to such programs without this library. They would have to travel to another branch, such as the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library in Germantown, she said, to be served in these ways.
"If people don't have transportation — and many don't," she said, "it would be hard to get there."
The library plans to keep the staff busy, continue to buy books and DVDs, and upgrade the computers, along with providing children's programming and story hours, said Ruthrauff.
People often overlook the positive effect that libraries have on neighborhoods, noted Shelkrot.
"Libraries," he insisted, "can have a really dramatic effect on making communities a desirable place to live."