After first implying that he would raise the city's piggyback income tax by 10 percent to keep the Pratt Free Library from closing any branches, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke now say "no." Actually, the Pratt says it could avoid closing branches and even extend hours at all its branches with just a quarter of that piggyback tax increase. The city ought to look for ways to raise that small amount of money for the Pratt, even though it still ought to close some branches.
Without such a determination both to increase the library's budget and to reduce the number of branches, the Pratt won't regain its prominence in national library circles. More important, without such an effort, the Pratt won't do a good job for the residents of the "City That Reads." The Pratt's level of funding now is so low -- relative to its own past and to other urban libraries today -- it simply cannot do what is expected of it.
The Pratt Library certainly cannot survive with 28 branches throughout the city and a budget of $18.5 million a year, which is what has been proposed. It probably can't even do it with a
budget of $22.3 million, which would keep its entire branch system intact. The reason is obvious. It can cost as much or more to maintain a library building to which few patrons come as to maintain a busy library building. Close the Pratt's under-used branches (of which there are several in the city) and that frees more resources for the popular branches (of which there are also several).
The equation is almost this direct and simple: fewer branches means more books, computers and more professional librarians available to assist the public for more hours a day.
The Pratt simply has too many branches for a city of this size. A few other older compact cities around the country have about as many library branches as the Pratt, but they have much bigger budgets. Baltimore spends $22 per capita (including state aid) on its library system. San Francisco spends $27; the District of Columbia, $31; Boston, $51, and Cleveland, $54.
Why can't the City That Reads compete with the Mistake on the Lake? Because Cleveland has a dedicated library tax. Sen. Julian Lapides proposed that for the Pratt this year in the General Assembly. The idea bombed.
So, strapped as it is financially, the Pratt Library has no choice but to become far more cost efficient. And the best way is to reduce the number of branches.
Politicians hate to hear this. Neighborhoods rise up in anger at the thought of losing even an inadequate branch library. What they should keep in mind is that this move would give some other nearby branches the funds to be responsive to the neighborhood's needs -- with a larger collection, more public hours and far more help from staff professionals.