Branches versus Books

January 19, 1992

Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library came up with $25,000 last week to help keep branches threatened with closure going a little bit longer. The Pratt's private board of trustees came up with $50,000. If everyone was as dedicated to the city's library as these two groups are, it would not be in trouble. But, alas, this is little more than utility bill money. It will be spent in a few months, and there will be nothing thereafter to show for it.

Neighborhoods know how to apply political pressure to keep their branches open, but sooner or later someone is going to have to bite this particular bullet and make the hard decisions about a library's priorities. Seventy-five thousand dollars would buy many thousands of books that would be around for use for a long time -- such as, for examples, these current best sellers: "Oh the Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Seuss ($12.95), "Matilda" by Raold Dahl ($3.95), the Teenage Mutant Turtles titles ($1.25 each). Not exactly great literature, but they are what start youngsters on the path to a lifetime of reading.

Compared to other libraries, the Pratt appears to be over-branched. Among the 51 public libraries in cities or counties with a population of 500,000 to 1,000,000, the Pratt is tied for eighth most branches (28). All seven systems with more branches serve much more spread-out areas. Cincinnati-Hamilton County (Ohio) is five times larger. Atlanta-Fulton County (Ga.) is more than six times larger than Baltimore. Buffalo-Erie County (N.Y.) is more than 12 times more expansive in square miles.

In contrast, the Pratt stands 19th out of 51 when it comes to purchased materials per capita. It ranks a sorry 31st out of 51 when it comes to spending on materials as a percentage of total expenditures. Not only do many cities spend more money on buying books, etc., than Baltimore City, but so do many suburban counties, including Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties (see chart below). Books versus branches is a painful choice. But branches without new books and other materials that attract readers and would-be readers are not going to be patronized.

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