Pratt offers to turn 5 branches over to community groups

December 04, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library decided yesterday that three of the eight branch libraries targeted for closing would remain open as non-circulating "homework centers" and said it wanted to turn over the other five to neighborhood groups willing and able to run them.

If the unprecedented plan to turn municipal libraries over to community groups succeeds -- which seems likely for at least a few of the five libraries now scheduled to close -- it would mark the first time in Baltimore history that citizens could borrow books from a public library not carrying the name of Enoch Pratt.

"We are moving these libraries from control of the Pratt to control of the communities," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of the proposal to have community groups operate their local libraries. "This will give [the neighborhoods] some leeway, but [the five branches] are still going to be closed as Pratt branches."

Initially, the Pratt announced that cuts of $1.3 million to its yearly budget of $16.5 million would force eight branches to close permanently.

But yesterday, Pratt director Anna Curry said that three of those branches -- in Clifton Park, Cherry Hill and Morrell Park -- will stay open as homework centers for students.

Those branches will not circulate books but will offer places for students to do schoolwork.

The fate of the other five depends on whether community groups in those neighborhoods can figure out a way to finance and run the library branches themselves. They have until the end of February to work something out, or the branches will close for good. Until then, the branches will be kept open with $200,000 in emergency funds the mayor is taking from various city maintenance budgets. The Pratt will add another $150,000 from its capital improvement budget.

The five branches are in Canton, Gardenville, the Hollins Market area, Pimlico and on Dundalk Avenue.

The idea for libraries run by neighborhoods began when the library crisis broke last month and literacy volunteers from Cherry Hill told the mayor they could do the job themselves for less money than it costs the Pratt.

Their challenge was soon followed by a proposal from community leaders in Pimlico saying they were interested in buying or renting their neighborhood Pratt branch if that would keep the library open. Residents in Gardenville, Dundalk and Canton also said they wanted to work something out.

Cherry Hill residents found out last night that they had won only half the battle -- their library will be spared from closing, but it will be one of the homework centers that won't circulate books.

"I'm still concerned that we will cease to be a lending library," said Patricia A. Gaither, director of a literacy program in the South Baltimore neighborhood.

Mrs. Curry explained the moves last night to a vocal crowd of about 150 citizens and Pratt employees during a public meeting at the library's main building on Cathedral Street. While no plans for formal transfer of the libraries from the Pratt to the neighborhoods have yet been worked out, many residents said the prospect of running their own library was daunting.

"Are we going to have a librarian to guide us?" asked Mary Clare Simon of Gardenville. "Who will take care of maintenance? It hasn't been very well maintained while the Pratt was running it."

Said her neighbor, Ann Meyer: "It's going to be a hell of a lot of work." Ms. Meyer said she would like to see the community staff the library until it can return to the Pratt fold, but library officials said that is unlikely to happen.

"We've been told that the next fiscal year is going to be worse than this one," said Averil Kadis, a library spokeswoman.

"The only options left are to work out some arrangement with communities who are committed enough to care about having a library in their neighborhood," Mrs. Kadis said. "But will they give it the kind of dedication and support [the branches are] going to need . . . not just for weeks and months but in perpetuity?"

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