When the St. Paul Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free zTC Library closed last night, the mystery, science fiction and Western novel shelves all were bare.
The books once on those shelves -- between 800 and 1,000 of them -- had been checked out as part of a protest by a group called Citizens for Pratt.
"We did this to say to the community that this is what empty shelves look like in the library," said Jane Shipley, a Charles Village resident who led the effort. "It is not a pretty sight. We would have checked out more, but the staff was getting beleaguered."
Pratt officials said today that they will not take any action in response to the demonstration. "We are not going after them in any way," said Averil Kadis, a spokeswoman.
The protest came in response to the city's plans to close five library branches because of budget problems. The branches will close after March 15, unless community groups can develop plans to run them privately. But those branches -- Canton, Dundalk, Gardenville, Hollins-Payson and Pimlico -- won't be part of the library system even if they can be saved, officials have said.
Three other branches -- Cherry Hill, Morrell Park and Clifton -- will remain open only as homework centers. They will not circulate books and will be staffed with part-time Pratt librarians, library officials have said.
"If we as a community are not careful, it will be more than five branches that close," Shipley said.
In an attempt to galvanize public support for the library system, Citizens for Pratt sent letters to 485 community groups asking them to endorse a "manifesto" telling the city and the library board to "take whatever steps are necessary" to maintain full service at all 28 branch libraries in Baltimore.
"We realize there are many problems in the city," Shipley said. "But we believe the answers to some of them can be found in the library. Books can open new worlds to people."
Shipley herself is an avid library user who teaches her three children at home and comes to the St. Paul Street branch at least twice a month to check out "bags full of books," according to Theresa Edmonds, the branch manager.
But the city's problems with library funding are evident even at her neighborhood branch, which first opened in 1896. Because of budget problems, the library has had no weekend or late evening hours for at least two years. And the annual budget for books and other materials is a paltry $15,000 a year, Edmonds said.
Plans to close library branches came after a $1.3 million cut in state aid. The budget cut pared the Pratt's already meager budget from $16.5 million to $15.2 million.
With the city and state both in financial crisis, the immediate financial outlook is bleak. As a result, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has publicly discussed privatizing the Pratt.
Shipley, however, is optimistic that the city and state will return to fiscal health eventually. And she wants the once-proud library system to survive the bad times intact.
"We have a fiscal emergency now that is not going to last," Shipley said. "But if we lose our libraries, we will never get them back."