Writing on wall is a cry for help for the city itself

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 25, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The handwriting is now on the wall. People are gathered on Cathedral Street, some of them still possessing actual reading skills, to look at the words in the windows of the Enoch Pratt Central Library, which declare:

"For Once, The Library Doesn't Want You to Be Quiet."

The sentence reads like a death rattle. Once, the libraries commanded silence and did not suffer talkers gladly. Now, they beg our collective outcry. Once, the mayor of Baltimore dubbed this "The City That Reads." Now, during a review of the Pratt's budget, he declares:

"With changes in technology, it may be that this number of library branches is passe."

It's a sort of passe-fail remark on the part of the former Rhodes scholar. If books are considered something of the past, then so is this city. If libraries are to wither, then so does a community that still wants to imagine itself vital and progressive.

The mayor says the city cannot afford the kind of money the Pratt says it needs. The handwriting on the wall says we cannot afford not to spend it. Each side computes cost in different quantities.

Yes, of course, money is tight. No one with brain cells disputes this. But the school system turns out illiterates by the thousands, and employers here moan that they can't find educated people to fill skilled positions, and bit by bit we move ourselves firmly into the 19th century.

The handwriting on the library wall comes from citizens' letters that protest cut budgets, curtailed services, the buying of fewer books, the continued closing of the central branch on Fridays. On and on they go, letters plastered all over the windows. You want the voice of the people? Here they are, in all their sadness and anger and helplessness.

There are about 10,000 letters Pratt officials now say they've gotten, many of them displayed in the Cathedral Street library windows, testimony to the institution's value, which cannot instantly be computed in mere dollars.

"It's one of the very few remaining amenities that makes this city at all habitable," writes Allan W. Garske.

"The Pratt libraries have been a great source of information and resources during my period of unemployment," writes Vernetta L. Wilson.

"The Pratt Library," writes a student named Joseph, "is the very backbone of the public education system. I owe every A+ on every book report and research paper I've done to the Pratt Library. Who can afford an entire volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica? The Pratt provides to poor students for free what more privileged may have at their fingertips at home. It gives poor students a chance at high academic excellence. Are you in favor of that?"

Naturally, yes.

Nobody's in favor of tightening the Pratt's budget, but somehow it keeps happening. Nobody's in favor of illiteracy, but somehow that happens, too. Nobody's in favor of a community trembling over the onset of the 21st century, but . . .

When library officials went to City Hall on Wednesday to ask for money, Mayor Schmoke, the biggest official booster of literacy, was naturally sympathetic.

But then he talked about closing neighborhood branches.

And then he suggested they were talking to the wrong person.

"He said we should be lobbying the state," Jane Shipley of Citizens for Pratt said Friday.

Right, the state. The city was lucky to escape this year's General Assembly session with money for the Convention Center, whose benefits can be computed into direct dollars. It already gets about 40 percent of its Pratt Library money from the state. And now, it should ask for more?

Out there in the hinterlands, they hate the city, think it's a drain on everybody else, think it's an occasional amusement but a consistentinsane asylum whose inmates are dangerous.

So forget more library money from the state. Last week, the Pratt people told the mayor they face the prospect of reducing hours at branches, allowing leaky roofs and other problems to go unfixed, and keeping the central branch closed on Fridays, as it has been for the past 17 months.

Does anyone care? Well, yeah, those 10,000 letter-writers care. You can see their handwriting right there in the window on Cathedral Street. Although there is this to report: After three weeks, the words are beginning to fade.

Library officials blame the bleaching effects of the sun. But they hope it's not a symbol of the fading power of the written word.

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