January 05, 1992|By James Bock

Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, once revered as a leader among the nation's libraries, has been reduced by shrinking resources and declining circulation to an object of pity, according to library directors around the country.

While the Pratt and its community friends have scrambled to cope with the library's latest crisis -- budget cuts that threaten a batch of neighborhood branches -- little attention has been paid to an even more troubling trend: a long-term decline that has snatched the Pratt from the ranks of America's best and relegated it to mediocrity.

The problems of the 105-year-old Pratt are the same problems of The City That Reads: the flight of its core middle-class clientele, who have taken their tax base with them. The Pratt has been left, in short, with too little money, too few new books and and too few new readers.

There is resistance here to the strategies that have kept some other big-city libraries healthy, such as special library taxes or mergers with suburban systems. And a gradual takeover of the Pratt by the state, which once seemed possible, now has been rendered pie-in-the-sky thinking by Maryland's budget crisis.

The Pratt still is a valued Baltimore resource. It is the first stop for any serious student of Maryland history, the place where barroom questions and bureaucratic quandaries get their answers, home to the inveterate reader and to the illiterate adult who wants to read.

But too many lean years have eroded its book-buying budget and its staff -- from a peak of 785 in the early 1970s to 382 today -- and left the library, especially its branches, unable to give people the books they want when they want them.

"Pratt is one of the grandes dames of libraries, in many ways the mother of us all," said Ginnie Cooper, director of the Portland (Ore.) library system. "But I don't think its reputation for current operations is enviable -- not because of staff, but because of its financial situation. It's a shame."

Consider that:

* More city residents borrowed books last year from the booming Baltimore County Public Library than from their own Pratt system. Simply put, Baltimore County can afford to buy more of the books people want -- 681 copies of Alexandra Ripley's best-seller "Scarlett," for example, compared to a total of 41 for the Pratt.

* City spending for the Pratt system was -- even before the most recent round of budget cuts -- among the lowest in the nation, in a league with the likes of Detroit.

* By the most widely accepted measure of a library's success -- circulation per capita of books and other materials -- the Pratt ranks towards the bottom for cities of Baltimore's size.

"The Pratt really has been shortchanged for a long time," said John Blegen, assistant director of the Pratt until 1988, when he left to head the Glenview (Ill.) system. "I find it outrageous to

have a slogan about The City That Reads with all the things that have taken place. That seems like the height of hypocrisy to me."

Anna Curry, who has presided over a decade of austerity as the Pratt's director since 1981, said she rejects the idea that the library will only continue to "muddle through."

But she acknowledged that the same financial pressures that trimmed the Pratt's budget by $900,000 this year to $15.6 million -- supplemented by a record $693,000 in income from the library's own endowment -- may force an even deeper cut in the 1992-1993 budget.

"We're not going to give up," said James A. Ulmer III, a 52-year-old real estate developer recently elected president of the Pratt's self-governing board of trustees.

Yet he added that if present budget trends continue, the library would be "almost going back to the original grant of Enoch Pratt that said he would build a central facility and four branches."

But neither he nor the Pratt's director thinks the time is politically ripe for any radical change in how the library is financed -- such as a special library tax, a merger with Baltimore County, or a state takeover of the Pratt (Maryland already foots part of the bill for the Central Library). They don't see taxpayers at any level -- city, county or state -- as willing to fork over money for the Pratt.

"We're not the only people having financial problems," Mr. Ulmer explained. "I don't see us in the situation of trying to promulgate a library tax."

Mrs. Curry and Mr. Ulmer say the library needs to raise money privately and forge community partnerships to maintain its health -- although such measures elsewhere have not proved a substitute for adequate public support. The Pratt recently hired a development director to raise private funds, and Mr. Ulmer sees the Pratt's branches as relying increasingly on community donations and volunteers.

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