Lots must happen before city reads

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

October 18, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

And so, on his very first day in office, the new mayor said: "It A would make me proudest if one day it simply could be said of = Baltimore that this is the city that reads."

, The city that reads . . .

Last year, more than 5,400 adults participated in one of several new adult-literacy centers in the city.

An unprecedented 158,000 new people signed up for a library card. Library officials say more people checked out books, last year. More people consulted reference materials. More people called the library's information hot line for help.

And, just last month, a book store opened in Mondawmin Mall. Yes, a new book store in an urban mall that had not had a book store of any sort for over six years.

But, for all of that, Baltimore still cannot be called a city that reads.

"I didn't for one moment think that we could get it done in three years," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday. "But I think we're heading in the right direction.

"Basically, we're getting the same kind of reaction to 'The City that Reads' that [former] Mayor Schaefer got to 'Baltimore is Best'," Schmoke continued.

"When Schaefer started out, there was an incredible amount of skepticism about that notion. But, as years went by, and people started seeing the benefits about what he was doing in the corporate community, as they started feeling better about the city, the notion caught on.

"So, it starts slowly," Schmoke concluded. "It takes longer to make a literate city than it does to make a building."

This is how far the city has to go toward becoming a literate city: City officials estimate that one out of three adults in Baltimore is functionally illiterate. One out of two city students eventually drops out of high school. The city has the highest unemployment rate in the metropolitan area.

Yet, despite the mayor's commitment and Baltimore's burning need, the city government has trouble simply making books readily available.

Last year, the Enoch Pratt Free Library had the lowest circulation rate in the state. And, despite last year's dramatic leap forward in registered borrowers, a smaller percentage of people possess library cards in the city than in any jurisdiction in the area.

Meanwhile, the city's financial commitment to its libraries has shrunk with each passing year. In 1985, for instance, the city provided 56 percent of Enoch Pratt's operating budget. By 1989, that commitment had shrunk to 49.7 percent. In 1987, the library employed 554 full- and part-time staff people, including 142 professional librarians. Last year, the staff had dropped to 447 people with only 123 professional librarians.

"We feel we have become very skillful at making do with less," said Averil Kadis, a library spokesperson. "But, does the shortage of resources have an effect on the quality of service? It has to. It is inescapable. It would be foolish to say that it doesn't."

School libraries are especially impoverished. The city ranks last in the state in its per-pupil spending on library and media supplies, spending one-tenth as much as many of its suburban neighbors.

A survey this summer by the School Library Information Media Society found that 90 percent of the city's schools fail to meet minimum state staffing standards while 77 percent fall short of minimum standards for reading materials.

"I try to tell people how bad off our kids are and they find it hard to believe," said Roger Mills, president of the organization that represents city school librarians. "It just boggles the mind. The whole city is losing out and our kids are losing out more than anyone else."

Schmoke said he is painfully aware of the problems. He said he is equally aware of the city's lack of resources.

But he added: "I made 'The City That Reads' my theme because I could see that improved . . . literacy was the key to an improved quality of life both for individuals and the community in general.

"When I campaigned, people would approach me on the street and say they needed a job. At the same time, businessmen would complain that they that could not find workers. So it became very clear the problem was not a shortage of people but a shortage of skills. 'The City That Reads' was a shorthand way of communicating a complicated idea."

Today, Baltimore is not a literate city. In fact, given the immensit of the problem, Baltimore may never become a city that truly reads.

But momentum is gathering.

And the goal is a very, very noble one.

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