What In The Living Heck Just Happened At The Philadelphia Free Library?

June 6, 2024, 10:29am

It’s been a confusing few days at the Philadelphia Free Library, with their entire Author Events programming staff resigning, before being abruptly fired, all of which set off a string of confusing announcements about future programs.

The Author Events program is a celebrated series of events created in 1994 that brings major authors and celebrities to the library. More than half of their events are free and, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “hosted 120 to 130 events per year, which brought in about 20,000 people,” and “their YouTube and podcast reaching up to 3 million people.”

On Monday June 3rd, the staff who run the program, Andy Kahan, Laura Kovacs, Jason Freeman, and Nell Mittelstead, submitted their resignations for the end of the month, to give the library time to find replacements. But a few hours later, the library fired them and began to lock them out of emails and offices. At least one former employee was escorted out by security. Some or all of the fired staff announced via official channels that future author programs would be canceled.

The Free Library then issued a countervailing statement that the events were not canceled, and that the previous announcement was “misinformation.”

The Library seemed caught off guard by the resignations. Their note about firing the staff acknowledged “fundamental disagreement on the strategic direction chosen by the Board for the Foundation,” but by all accounts, the library should have anticipated the situation was dire. The Inquirer writes that the “events team … met with human resources multiple times, including as recently as last week.”

It’s unclear what exact disagreements led the entire staff to walk away. WHYY quotes library staff saying “there was a culture of disrespect from leadership, describing it as ‘cruel.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that the resignation was “due to what they described as a “heartbreaking” work culture plagued by increasingly low morale over the past year.” The Inquirer also writes:

The events team refrained from speaking about top brass, instead describing a declining workplace culture with high turnover. They described the environment as “death by a thousand cuts” with the team feeling as though their work wasn’t important to the foundation. They had expressed concerns over pay parity where half the team felt they were being underpaid.

There is lots of gossip and rumor about this story on Reddit. Multiple posts on the r/philly subreddit and one on the r/philadelphia subreddit seem to corroborate what the staff is telling news outlets about conditions inside the library:

I heard a rumor it had something to do with return to office policies. No idea of the veracity in that.

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FWIW I heard through the grapevine that a big contributing “workplace culture” factor that led to them submitting their resignations … was the mayor’s “everyone has to work in the office 5 days a week, no exceptions” policy. They are not city employees but were still being expected to comply.

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Gotta respect the solidarity they are showing here. The library staff has all been showing support too. I can’t find anyone standing behind the leadership of the library and foundation so that says a lot.

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… If a workplace is poorly run enough to chase out 4 people who were making something out of nothing and serving the community & world while underpaid, I don’t think that a lot of faith can be put in management to create a cohesive new team together in time to take over these events. None of them are there today to do anything, who are these authors peoples liaising with to get people in the door, participants prepped, needs met, etc.? All the institutional knowledge that was in the joint is currently browsing LinkedIn. It would be hard for the management that caused the problems to pull off producing these events with notice.

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… these storied institutions are among the most mismanaged nonprofits in the region and deserve the attention.

They are almost universally known throughout the Philadelphia area and beyond. They are beloved as ideas, but disregarded as workplaces. They occupy such an exalted place in our city’s landscape that only the wealthiest, most connected of Philadelphians can get a seat on their boards. They do. It’s for show, so there are no checks and balances. No one asks actual questions or pays attention to the deplorable state of upper management, the laughable wages, or the misconduct and questionable reporting practices that get swept under the rug.

As someone who stayed in nonprofits even after a terrible experience on the Parkway and is now a senior leader, I applaud the Author Events team. It takes courage of conviction to resign as a unit and to realize that there is only one way to get people in this city actually talking about what working at one of these “vaunted” institutions looks like.

There is no one to blame here except terrible leaders at the top and the disconnected board members who empower them. I hope this leads to some actual change at the Library Foundation and the other organizations on the Parkway.

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The staff, including Andy,  were some of the best people I’ve worked with and I still talk to many. But the level of abuse (insulting people, making them cry, etc) from leadership was wild. I worked with a donor where if I didn’t sign my emails with both her name and mine, she’d call me and tear me a new one, and my boss was totally fine with this. It made me pretty depressed seeing all the comments accusing the staff of being basically selfish trash without knowing what it is like to work there.

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The folks at the helm of the foundation a decade ago were ruthless when it came to extra funding for “extraneous” arts and culture programs, especially those not at the central library. It was infuriating building a public facing program at various branches they obviously wanted, but they actively didn’t involve themselves in it while we scrambled for funding.

I noticed a lot of push and pull and consolidation of public facing projects and programs amongst middle management during my time there, every mid-level director or manager wanted it known that they were responsible for the success of x,y,z… So something like this boiling over isn’t super surprising to me.

Overall, it seems clear that the Author Events staff were passionate about their work, and mismanagement and abuse means that Philadelphians are losing out on their expertise and enthusiasm.

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