Others could learn from Lafayette Square

NEW LIFE AT CUT PRATT BRANCH

December 09, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Baltimoreans in Canton, Gardenville, O'Donnell Heights, the Hollins Market area, and Pimlico could learn a lot from Twilah Scarborough.

And they've got about 90 days to learn it if they want to keep their neighborhood libraries open.

In 1989, when the Enoch Pratt Free Library moved out of its Lafayette Square branch in West Baltimore, Twilah Scarborough moved in to keep books on the shelves and the doors open.

"They left us 125 cases of books as a peace offering," said Ms. Scarborough, a neighborhood resident who runs the one-room library five days a week.

"Since they've been gone, I've had 25 to 30 kids in here every day."

Now, the chronically cash-poor Pratt -- hit hard with $1.3 million in budget cuts ordered by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- says it is too broke to operate five branches in neighborhoods from Canton to Pimlico.

With the mayor's blessing, the Pratt has given community groups near those branches a choice: Figure out in three months how to finance and run the library yourselves or catch a ride to the next closest one.

The neighborhoods, Canton in particular, are determined to spend the next 90 days fighting the Pratt's repeated intention to completely and permanently sever itself from the targeted branches.

The library has offered to train volunteers and lend the communities technical assistance, but says all help will end after 90 days.

The city has not resolved who would own or be liable for the former library buildings if communities agree to use them.

The Pratt initially threatened to close eight branches, but after protests it agreed to save those in Cherry Hill, Morrell Park, and Lake Clifton as non-circulating "homework centers."

If it makes good the threat to close the other five, the people who want to keep the libraries open are going to need a bushel of money and someone with the next-door neighbor savvy of Twilah Scarborough.

An Urban Services employee who grew up in the area, Ms. Scarborough is the only full-time non-volunteer working at the library in a multipurpose center at 1510 West Lafayette Street.

As a Pratt branch with professional librarians, it cost the city $75,000 a year. Under the care of the Friends of Lafayette Square Community organization, it costs $18,000, not counting Ms. Scarborough's salary from Urban Services.

Of course, the Pratt librarians weren't running down to the guy who owns the local Amoco station or the man who runs a neighborhood tow truck service when they needed money.

"I've been getting my gas from Harold Reid for 10 years, and when he found out that a lot of people had donated videos to the library but we didn't have anything to play them on he made a donation of a VCR the next week," said Ms. Scarborough, who worked for the Pratt as a library aide in the 1960s before joining Urban Services.

"And [towing service owner] Bobby Drake gave us a television. When the community heard what we were doing in here they pitched in on their own, and we were able to buy 200 new books ourselves."

Because she is so well known and respected in the neighborhood, people listen when Ms. Scarborough calls for help.

That includes the librarians at the Pratt's big, renovated branch at Pennsylvania and North avenues, where Ms. Scarborough goes to pick the brains of old friends who have library science degrees.

When there's some extra money to buy books, she asks what the Pratt is doing and follows its lead. If a dozen kids ask for a reference book that Lafayette Square doesn't have, Ms. Scarborough makes a note of it and goes to a local merchant for help. And when senior citizens find themselves with unused encyclopedias on the shelves and no one around to use them, they know whom to call.

Two high school students help younger kids with homework, and six elementary school students shelve books and sign them out toborrowers on the honor system.

Unlike the Pratt, which has 395,907 card-holders citywide, the Lafayette Square reading room doesn't need a computer.

The children write down a borrower's name on index cards and expect the material to be brought back in two weeks.

"We haven't had a lost or damaged book yet," Ms. Scarborough said.

The people in Canton want to do the same to run Branch No. 4, the last of four original libraries opened in 1886 by Enoch Pratt himself.

The Southeast Community Organization (SECO) has told Mayor Schmoke it needs $30,000 a year to run the brick building at South Ellwood Avenue and O'Donnell Street and has submitted a proposal based on volunteer labor and close ties to Canton Middle School.

It also refuses to give up on forcing the Pratt and the city to maintain a relationship with the historic branch.

"The key is a solid core of volunteers. It won't work without that," said Craig Spilman, principal of Canton Middle School. "The school will support it, but the community has to come up with the people."

Mr. Spilman said Mayor Schmoke told him and other Canton leaders he will find a way to have the utilities paid if they came up with a good proposal based on volunteers.

"The challenge is there," said Mr. Spilman. "We'll see how much the community really wants to do this."

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