Keeping City Libraries Open

November 23, 1991

Public opposition to the Schmoke administration's plans to shutter eight branch libraries should tell the mayor that constituents want to see him stick to the slogan he embraced in his first term, "Baltimore, the City that Reads." With creativity and civic support, the budgetary reductions that led to the announced closings can be overcome.

A total of $1.3 million is being cut from the Enoch Pratt Free Library's already hard-hit budget. Eight neighborhood reading centers are on the chopping block. Execution date is set for the week of Dec. 2. It is an extreme step that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke should find ways to avoid, especially in light of growing civic concern over the ramifications of closing the door on libraries for many of the city's poorest kids.

One approach already being discussed is taking money out of other municipal activities that are far lower on the priority list than libraries: the $1.3 million spent on the city's cable television channel; the $1 million spent on salaries and other overhead by the Mayor's Commission on Arts and Culture; the $173,000 spent to run the Commission for Women that duplicates work done by several other agencies; the $4.3 million spent on festivals, parades and civic promotions.

Another avenue is wider community involvement in running library branches. Using large numbers of volunteers could trim operating costs substantially and also foster greater neighborhood interest in these branches. The mayor should accept the proposal of St. Veronica's Damascus Education Center to take over the operation of the Cherry Hill branch. Hard work from local volunteers could lower city expenses to just $50,000 a year -- 60 percent less than what the city now spends to run the branch. That kind of "can do" spirit should be rewarded by City Hall.

The mayor also ought to press foundations and business organizations to take an active role in saving branch libraries and contributing to their annual upkeep. Instilling a love of learning and a love of books in Baltimore's children is vital for the city's future economic well-being. A new kind of partnership among government, corporations, foundations and neighborhoods may be needed to safeguard these vital community institutions.

Some of the targeted libraries could resurface as part-time reading rooms or homework centers. Neighborhood interest might not prove sufficient in all cases to keep branches open. When that happens, the mayor should see that the Pratt has enough money to beef up nearby branches to take up the slack. The importance of a quality library system in a city with masses of low-income families cannot be ignored. Giving children a warm and safe place to go to do homework and read a good book is critical. We cannot abandon them.

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