Residents of neighborhoods from Dundalk to Pimlico lost the privilege of borrowing books within walking distance of their homes yesterday as the Enoch Pratt Free Library announced the permanent closing of eight branch libraries.
"The cuts are deep, and there's no help in the offing," said Pratt director Anna Curry.
The move will leave the 105-year-old Pratt, once among the cream of the nation's municipal library systems, with 20 branches and the downtown Central Library on Cathedral Street.
In response to a city budget slashed last week by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the branches' doors are expected to close for good the first week of December.
Also, 41 Pratt employees will lose their jobs, remaining employees will be furloughed for six days, the Central Library will be closed every Friday, and one-fifth of the system's budget for new books will be lost.
In all, $1.3 million has been cut from the Pratt's current fiscal budget of $16 million.
"I feel like somebody has died," said a librarian at the Dundalk branch.
Along with branches in Clifton Park, Cherry Hill, the Hollins Market area, Morrell Park, Pimlico, Dundalk, and Gardenville, the Pratt decided to keep open the Canton branch, the last of four original branches opened personally by founder Enoch Pratt in 1886.
The Pratt also is seeking to free itself of the burden of maintaining the properties, said Averil Kadis, the Pratt's spokeswoman.
"We're hoping some other city agency might take them," she said.
When the announcement was made yesterday, Florence Brown, chief of the branch system, ran from the board of directors meeting to give her staff the bad news before they heard it from reporters.
"One person cried, and they had me crying," Ms. Brown said. "The only thing I could tell them was that we don't know who will be laid off yet."
"This is so hurtful, not for me, but for the community," said Juanita C. Pilgrim, manager of the Clifton branch.
"I know that some of us will lose our jobs, but whether I'm here or not this branch just has to stay open for these children."
The branches to be closed were selected based on use, condition of building and proximity to more popular branches. Ms. Curry said the eight branches were among the least used in the city.
"I think some people will step forward to express their disappointment, but I don't know that these decisions can be changed by public protest," said Ms. Curry, recalling how community outrage saved six branches scheduled for closing in 1986. "Libraries historically and across the nation have too often been seen as a non-essential service."
Despite being singled out for low use, the branches being closed are seen as essential to the people who do take advantage of them.
"Oh no, not this one," said Beatrice McCormack, who lives around the corner from the Canton branch. "We get two or three books a week here. It's convenient because I don't drive and the librarian is always helping children with their homework and reading."
Ronald Barton felt even worse.
"It's sickening, very sickening," said Mr. Barton, who arrived yesterday at the Cherry Hill branch -- actually a single room in a multipurpose center -- with his 5-year-old niece.
"This community doesn't have the services it needs to begin with. . . . A lot of people don't have cars to go over to the Brooklyn library," said Mr. Barton, who showed up to borrow a copy of "The Assassination of Malcolm X." And Tracy McQuay said there was no way she could duplicate the Pratt's books at home to help her 12-year-old son, Tyrone, to do his homework.
A public meeting on the future of library services will be held Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Central Library.
The Pratt has had detailed plans to streamline library service for several years, and when its board of directors tried to close the six branches in 1986, the goal was to strengthen the remaining branches.
That was not what happened yesterday. "There is no reallocation of resources here," said Ms. Kadis, the Pratt spokeswoman.
"We'd like to keep those funds and staffing to offer 20 excellent branches that would serve the city very well, but that's not what we're talking about. This is a total loss."