As mid-afternoon sun streamed through the clerestory windows of the city's Clifton branch library, Ashley Jones and her father Donald sat at a short round table, deciding which book the 5-year-old would take home.
This time the honor fell to James Marshall's "The Cut-Ups Carry On." For his older daughter, Jones selected more pragmatic treats: "How To Sharpen Your Study Skills" and "Study Tactics."
Allyson Jones, 13, is determined to go to Dunbar or Poly. And Dad's determined to help.
"We get here to the library about twice a week," said Jones, a retired Air Force serviceman who lives four blocks away. He was
one of many patrons of Clifton Library Center No. 18, 2001 N. Wolfe St., who were saddened and frustrated by yesterday's announcement that the branch will close due to city budget cuts.
As part of its effort to trim $1.3 million from its $16 million budget, the Enoch Pratt Free Library board voted yesterday to close eight of its 28 branches, chosen on the basis of such criteria as operating costs, usage and proximity to other branches. Besides Clifton, libraries in Canton, Cherry Hill, Dundalk, Gardenville, Hollins/Payson, Morrell Park and Pimlico will close the week of Dec. 2.
A fixture in the Clifton Park neighborhood for nearly 80 years, the brick Italianate library was built with money from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It is one of five Carnegie buildings still operating in the city's library system.
It was also one of the three branches designated to serve as homework centers, or study islands removed from the often turbulent worlds of school and home.
Yesterday, oblivious to bad news, about 15 children from Harford Heights Elementary School and Lake Clifton High School sat quietly in the Clifton library. They read story books and pondered homework, assuming attitudes of learning of which any school system would be proud.
"I'm amazed that they come in here and do their homework instead of running on the streets," said Troy Hooper, a freshman at Coppin State College who volunteers as a homework helper at Clifton twice a week.
"It's made me feel good to see how many young brothers and sisters are into their books. I wish I would have spent time in libraries when I was a kid."
Hooper is a sensitive, laid-back kind of tutor. He lets children drift into the library, talk, fool around a bit, settle down. Studying his own homework, he takes his time before picking up on a cue that someone might appreciate a little help.
"They'll start looking around," he said. "Or scratching their heads. You can usually just tell these things. A lot of these kids just come in to read, though. These kids are intelligent little kids. Where will they go if this library closes?"
Like the homework centers at Morrell Park and Cherry Hill, both of which will close next month, Clifton was refashioned recently into a branch with books and resources primarily to help school children. (It is open only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.) Fax machines and computers link students to the latest periodicals at the Central Library for help in preparing reports.
However, the branch retains the comfortable feeling of an old family place. Bright and orderly, the vaulted room seems to project that sense of cheerful wisdom one likes to associate with older relatives.
Yesterday, Sheree Planter, 10, claimed a nice stretch of table for herself, her wooden ruler and a blue loose-leaf binder bulging with homework. A fourth-grader at Harford Heights, she comes to Clifton every day when school lets out at 2:30 p.m. Her sister, Patricia, a student at Lake Clifton, joins her at 3:30 p.m.
Their father picks them up when the library closes at 5 p.m.
Sheree said it's easier to do her homework at the library than at her home in Edmondson Village, or "The Village," as she calls it. She also likes "the lady from Coppin" who helps her out Mondays and Fridays.
"My own personal opinion about why they are closing these libraries is because the children don't vote," said Ruth Redmond, 66.
Redmond's children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren have used this library. She retired as its head librarian in 1985.
"The next branch is more than 10 blocks away," Redmond said. "It's too dangerous for kids to go that far. Most people around here do not have cars, so they can't just go back and forth to Central. And as for the kids who go to the library by themselves -- and there are lots of them -- that'll be out of the question."
Gazing around the room, she talked about children who discovered the joys of reading at Clifton. Redmond developed a repertoire of tricks to hook unlikely prospects on literature.
"I'd catch the boys -- some teen-agers, some younger -- with this," she said, patting "Teacup Full of Roses" by Sharon Bell Mathis.
"It's about a mother with three sons: The oldest is good in art, the second is a hustler and the third plays basketball. The mother loves her son the artist the most, but he's on drugs. She doesn't pay any attention to her second son, the hustler. And the youngest wins a scholarship because of his basketball.
"Then there's a terrible tragedy in their lives."
She paused dramatically.
"I'd start out by reading part of this to them. And then I'd shut the book and say, 'If you want to know the rest, you've got to read it yourselves.' "