Sharp Dressed, Well Read: This Philly Library Lets Job Hunters Borrow Ties

The ‘tiebrary’ provides residents with a cravat for the all-important interview.

Omelio Alexander, a library assistant at the Paschalville branch neighborhood library in Philadelphia, arranges ties for the tiebrary. (Photos: Courtesy Paschalville Neighborhood Library/Facebook)

May 12, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The internet is littered with advice columns on how to look your best during a job interview—and for men dressing to impress, this usually includes wearing a tie. But what happens when a cash-strapped guy doesn’t have the funds to purchase the necessary neckwear?

If that job seeker is in Philadelphia, all he needs to do is take a trip to the “tiebrary,” a tie-lending initiative started in March at the Paschalville branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The 48 ties in the tiebrary’s collection include conservative colors and patterns as well as more brightly hued, trendy cravats and can be checked out for up to three weeks by anyone with a library card.

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“It’s an illustration of libraries really responding to the needs of their communities,” Nate Eddy, a lifelong librarian and the strategy coordinator for the Free Library of Philadelphia, told TakePart about the project. “People still associate libraries with quiet places to check out a book, but we’re so much more than that.”

Along with high rates of poverty and unemployment, the southwest Philly neighborhood that’s home to the Paschalville branch has a large immigrant population and “a lot of what we call ‘returning citizens’—those ex-offenders who were recently released—so there’s a high need in the area for employment services,” explained Eddy.

Indeed, branch manager Jennifer Walker told TakePart that many of the 30,000 mostly black and Asian American residents in the Paschalville branch’s service area face numerous challenges. “The unemployment rate is 18.5 percent. As for education attainment, 25 percent of the working-age population has less than a high school diploma, and another 39 percent has not progressed past a high school diploma. The poverty level is 34 percent,” she said. About 25 percent of the population are also relatively recent immigrants from African nations or from Vietnam, she said.

Getting those community members prepared to enter the workforce is one of the library system’s main priorities. So last year, when Eddy was on a visit to the Queens Public Library in New York City and heard about a small tiebrary operating there, he was intrigued. A tie-browsing session on Amazon earlier this year spurred him to expand the concept to Philadelphia. “I reached out to Queens to see if they wouldn’t mind us replicating the idea. They said, ‘Go for it,’ ” he said.

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Eddy’s team purchased a dozen ties and sent them to the Paschalville branch. But it was Omelio Alexander, one of the library assistants, who took the idea to the next level and came up with the display case and checkout process, Eddy said.

“Sometimes you have part of the interview outfit but not the whole outfit, and this is an easy way to doctor up whatever you have and make it more professional,” Alexander, who has worked at the Paschalville branch for nearly six years, told TakePart. He turned some clear VHS cases that were collecting dust in a storage area into display boxes for the neckwear. Enabling patrons to check out ties for up to three weeks lets folks use them for more than one interview without having to go back and forth to the library.

But given the extensive job-training resources offered at the library, patrons might want to come back more frequently. Since 2006, the facility has been home to a comprehensive job readiness center. Computers and free Wi-Fi, along with skill-building workshops and classes on how to get a job, are offered. A digital resource specialist provides individualized help searching online for jobs, filling out digital applications, and creating and uploading résumés.

“We find that’s what people really need—that one-on-one interaction,” said Walker. “The tiebrary fits right in because so many people who come here are employment seekers.”

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After Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney paid a visit to the branch and shared a photo of the tiebrary on Twitter in late March, word spread. MenzFit, a local nonprofit organization that gives low-income men suits to wear on interviews and a second outfit once they’re hired, heard about the effort and donated 36 ties. But only a handful of patrons have checked out ties so far. “We are still trying to figure out the best way to promote it and trying to get people to understand [the ties’] value,” said Alexander.

According to the results of a Pew Research Center survey released in April, getting the word out to the public about all that libraries have to offer is a challenge nationwide. The survey found that although 62 percent of local libraries offer career resources to patrons, only about 40 percent of Americans were aware of them.

Walker said the branch is in the process of creating catchy signs with information about the tiebrary. “The ties are so pretty, maybe people don’t know that they can borrow them,” she said. “And it is a new idea. People are used to seeing books and movies on display. They’re not accustomed to seeing other things that they can borrow.”