Upheaval at the Pratt Library

October 16, 1992

The decision of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's board of directors and trustees to "terminate" director Anna Curry was, no doubt, almost as painful for them as it is for her. She has been a hard-working leader of the Pratt team for 11 years. She came up through the ranks and has been a member of the Pratt family for all her adult life.

But the cold, hard truth is that the Pratt is foundering under her direction and, if this continues much longer, what once was one of the premier public libraries in the nation could sink beneath the stormy waves that buffet it.

There seem to be two problems with Mrs. Curry's leadership at present. One, she has lost the confidence of her board. Two, she has lost the respect of many of her subordinates. That is a description of isolation that no leader of any institution can suffer and still lead. No institution so led can serve its public patrons.

As bad as the problem up from the director's office is, the problem down is even worse. This sort of demoralization affects people's work, drives good people away, dissuades good people from coming. And no next generation of potential library directors is being seasoned. This means that the good example the Pratt trustees set when they promoted her to the directorship, after having brought in two outsiders in the previous two decades, almost certainly cannot be repeated.

The library's three most recent directors vowed to do better in changing the nature of the Pratt from an urban institution with a narrow focus on "traditional users," as the largely white, middle class patrons are often called, to one trying to serve residents of those neighborhoods which libraries often ignored or failed to understand. Mrs. Curry and her predecessors have to be judged as unsuccessful in this hard task. Readership and other measures of library use are so dismal in Baltimore that the motto "The City That Reads" is a hollow mockery of the reality.

Mrs. Curry's best skills, one critic has aptly put it, were those connected with her imaginative assessment of what could be done. The vision thing. But hers seems to have been the kind of vision that achieves results in good times rather than bad. Every year, through no fault of hers, the resources available to the Pratt declined and declined. Without her political skills, the resources might even have declined faster.

The decline might accelerate if the local political community takes Mrs. Curry's side against the trustees. That's a risk, but it must be taken. The Pratt must have a director who has the full confidence of the board, its employees, its patrons and the city and state taxpayers who underwrite the enterprise. If any substantial segment of that coalition gives up on the Pratt, it cannot long continue as an entity that even faintly resembles its former self or even half adequately serves its city.

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