The Decline Of Schools, Libraries And Hopes

ALICE STEINBACH

November 17, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

Choosing to live out your adult life in the city where you grew up, as I have, sometimes makes you look at changes in the community with a proprietary eye.

For example: When you share a lifelong history with a place, it's easy to fall into the trap of remembering the way things were in the past as better than the way they are now.

You tend to remember the physical environment as greener and more open. You remember people on the street as friendlier and salespeople as more courteous. You remember public transportation as an excellent way of getting to wherever you needed to go.

And you have memories of what your city was like before the malls arrived like powerful aliens from another planet: You could shop in your own neighborhood at the corner grocery or travel a few blocks away to the cluster of variety shops and bakeries and hardware stores. Or even make the trip downtown.

Of course, since you remember all this through the rosy veil of childhood, the adult in you cautions: "Well, maybe it was better back in those days and maybe it wasn't."

But about some changes you have no such doubts.

For years now I have watched the decline of Baltimore's public school system. And as the beneficiary of what was in my day an excellent public education, I have reacted to its demise in varying stages of denial, anger, depression and acceptance.

But at some point I came to the conclusion, sadly, that I no longer believe Baltimore's public school system can work -- at least not without a total revision from the ground floor up.

And now comes the news that because of budget problems, the city's once great public library system must close branches, lay off employees, cut back its hours and reduce its book budget.

It's not the first symptom of decline in the fortunes of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. And it may not be the last. There's a sense of deja vu here: Are we now watching the public library system go the way of the public school system?

The reaction in the community -- a community which, ironically, ,, bills itself as "The City That Reads" -- has a distinctly funereal tone: "I feel like somebody has died," one branch librarian told The Sun when the cuts were announced.

And, of course, for those of us who grew up thinking that the words "Pratt" and "library" were synonyms, the downsizing of the Pratt is like a death in the family.

Maybe it's different nowadays. Maybe the neighborhood library no longer serves as a heart that pumps out something very vital to the community. But it occupied that role when I was growing up.

Even now I remember the precise layout of my library: children's section and non-fiction to the right as you entered; fiction to the left. Lining the north and south walls were rows of windows that were opened and closed with a long pole that had pincers on the end.

In the steamy Baltimore summers, the hot breezes would swirl around the top of the library, causing the tan blinds to flap, flap, flap against the windows.

On cold winter days, the radiators lining the wall would send out hissing sounds punctuated by water gurgling through the ancient pipes.

It was there in that small room, seated in a straight-backed chair at a rectangular, wooden table, that I read "Grimms' Fairy Tales" and "Little Women" and "Anne of Green Gables." And I learned about friendship, love, betrayal, faith, goodness and evil.

But perhaps the most important function of the library is not the education of the individual but the link it provides to our collective past.

"The library carries within it our nation's heritage," Vartan Gregorian, former director of the New York City Public Library, once said. "It is not a repository alone. It is also an instrument of civilization."

But across the country, these "instruments of civilization" are failing. Falling, as the public school system is, through some loosely woven safety net. "Libraries historically and across the nation have too often been seen as a non-essential service," the Pratt's director told The Sun.

It would be easy to say, "Give more money to the libraries." But where is the money to come from? Even if you trim every bit of fat from city budgets, there still is not enough money to go around in these hard times. The cupboard is bare at every level in this country: federal, state and municipal.

And it's painful to watch the government spending billions to bail out the S&L's or pay off the interest on an irresponsibly high debt while public libraries and schools languish.

But one thing is clear: As libraries and schools decline, so too do our hopes for this country's future.

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