Proposal offered on library Cherry Hill struggles to keep Pratt branch

November 27, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Cherry Hill has screamed foul since the Enoch Pratt Free Library announced it was closing the neighborhood's library because of budget cuts forced by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke two weeks ago.

It appears someone has heard them.

Today, the Pratt Board of Trustees are expected to meet with library director Anna Curry to discuss a proposal to run the library as a non-circulating resource center with volunteers and staff paid well below the scale of Pratt librarians. The plan is offered by Cherry Hill's St. Veronica's Damascus Education Center.

The immediate closing of the library, scheduled for next week with seven other branches chosen by the Pratt's Board of Trustees, will be postponed while a mayoral aide baby-sits the branch and the neighborhood scrambles for an alternative.

Mayor Schmoke has endorsed the idea of keeping the Cherry Hill library open for $50,000 a year. It now costs the Pratt $123,468 to operate the library, actually a single room in a neighborhood multi-purpose center.

"I expect that of the eight [branches to be closed], there will be at least five good proposals," the mayor said after meeting this week with literacy workers from Cherry Hill, a poor, mostly black neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore. "We're starting to get a lot of calls from businesses asking what they can do. Adversity is generating a lot of ideas."

But Mr. Schmoke, who met Monday with members of St. Veronica's Damascus Education Center of Cherry Hill, said he has not changed his mind about cutting the eight branches from the Pratt system.

If they are kept open by volunteer efforts, they would operate as homework centers or reading rooms, and not as circulating libraries.

The mayor told Patricia A. Gaither of St. Veronica's, an adult and pre-school literacy center that depends on the local library to help them teach people to read, that he is open to using volunteers to keep the library open and wants to explore the possibility of turning the whole Pratt system over to private operators.

But a complicated 19th century legal agreement between Enoch Pratt and the city, signed when the wealthy merchant made his gift of libraries to the citizens of Baltimore, would most likely prevent the mayor from easily unloading the $16 million-a-year operation on private enterprise.

The agreement made the endowment of the Pratt possible only if the system were administered by the city.

Averil Kadis, a library spokeswoman, said that privatizing the Pratt "is many legal decisions away before it can be considered. It's something that would require a charter change or an opinion from legal authority.

"Our position continues to be that bricks and mortar don't make a library," Ms. Kadis said. "You need a trained staff. In the short term, it sounds like a wonderful idea [to use volunteers], but the children won't be getting what a real library gives."

To the residents of Cherry Hill, the choice between a makeshift library and no library at all is not a hard one to make.

"The Pratt itself still does not have the money," Ms. Gaither said. "So the ball is in our court to work out all the details, help secure volunteers and work with Anna Curry and the mayor. Some creative thinking is due here, for us and maybe for the Pratt overall."

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