Bethlehem Public Library in Southside Bethlehem hangs "Educate Inform Inspire" signs, which can be seen from the Webster Street side of the building. Many of the houses on Webster Street are now owned by student housing companies and rented to Lehigh students. (Lauren Slovensky/B&W Staff)

Library landlocked by Lehigh housing loses foot traffic


The expanding presence of off-campus student housing has raised concerns over accessibility to the Bethlehem Area Public Library South Side, located at the corner of Webster and Fourth streets. 

For the past 20 years, Claire Ebner, a circulation technician at the Southside branch of the Bethlehem Area Public Library, has seen single-family homes around the branch turn into student housing. 

Ebner believes there is a satisfactory relationship between the library and Lehigh students, but the issue remains that the library is now surrounded by a demographic it was not built to serve. 

“We get students who show once in a while. But then they’re gone for the summer. They borrow a book or two,” Ebner said. “But they’re not coming to a program, they’re not going to the story times, they’re not using the library, which was its original intention. That’s the biggest challenge.” 

In the past, there has been property damage as a result of the students living in off-campus houses. Brenda Grow, the former Southside branch manager, said, in the past, students living in houses next door have broken windows to the library’s office and bathroom. 

Grow said two years ago students partying on a nearby roof threw four trash cans worth of beer bottles down the library’s gutters, which caused water damage in the library’s basement. To fix the damage, the library had to pay a $10,000 deductible. 

Branch Manager Alison Madden said the encroaching student housing in the area has led to a decrease in the number of children that come to the branch after school. She says there used to be waitlists to use the computers, but now the library rarely sees middle or high schoolers walk through its doors.

The Bethlehem City Council is trying to address how student housing has outpriced families through an overlay district, which designates what properties can be rented out to college students. Although the library is not within the district, the surrounding property is. 

“A lot of families and students rely on walking. And unfortunately, even though we’re only maybe a five-minute drive from Donegan [Elementary], it’s a lot longer walking,” Madden said. 

According to the State Library of Pennsylvania, there has been a 22% decrease in total registration at the Bethlehem Area Public Library in the last 20 years.

In 2002, 58,524 people out of 118,458 were registered users. In 2022, the library’s registration was 33,812 people out of 118,265. 

The decrease in single-family homes means more families accessing the library now rely on driving, but parking around the library is limited, Madden said.

“It can just really discourage people from using our library just because there is no parking,” Madden said. “It’s not easy to access.” 

Josh Berk, the director of the Bethlehem Area Public Library, said the Boys and Girls’ Club closing in 2017 and Holy Infancy School moving from its nearby location at 127 E. Fourth St. in 2019 also decreased the amount of foot traffic to and around the library. 

“The Boys and Girls Club and Holy Infancy used to bring so many kids into the neighborhood, and that just doesn’t happen anymore,” Berk said. “So people who are using the library have to seek it out a little more and travel a little further.” 

The loss of foot traffic has warranted conversations on whether the location of the branch should be moved, whether to a more walkable area or into the proposed community center, Madden said.

The City of Bethlehem’s feasibility study in March 2023 for the community center requested proposals from the public to determine how the center could best serve Bethlehem. Madden said she would like the library to be involved in the community center somehow. 

“Being a part of that community center or even nearby would be helpful as well,” Madden said. “It’s a big shame to see so many families leave and just feeling like we’re kind of off their map a little bit.” 

However, Ebner has reservations. She thinks the encroachment of student housing throughout the Southside could mean the community center’s placement could still not access Southside locals.

Berk said although it would be beneficial to extend outreach through a mini branch in the community center, losing the current historic building — which opened its doors in 1930 — would be disheartening.

“If the opportunity presents itself to move the entire library there and it seems like it’s the right move… it’s not a bad idea,” Berk said. “The library wants to be where the families that need it are.” 

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