The City That Redes

March 08, 1995

In 1990, concerned about the decline of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, The Sun editorially called for more money and better leadership of what once had been among the nation's very best public libraries. A new director, Carla Hayden, was hired three years later, and she is providing just the kind of leadership we and other friends of the Pratt had in mind.

But the money -- the money problem has gotten worse. From fiscal 1990 to fiscal 1995 the library's operating budget went up less than 15 percent -- from $16.1 million to $18.4 million, and its capital budget stayed at just under half a million dollars.

Adjusted for inflation, the Pratt actually has more than a million dollars less for this fiscal year than for 1990. And that doesn't begin to tell the story. The cost of learning has been rising faster than the cost of living. Periodicals and books have risen in cost by much more than has the consumer price index. Furthermore, the 1990s have been a period in which new costs are coming to burden libraries: capital expenditures for computers and operating expenditures for software.

Dr. Hayden says that she's "a book person," but she also says, correctly, that public libraries have to offer the latest -- read "expensive" -- "information technology" to do their job as "the people's university."

The city should and could find ways to provide the library more money. (So should and could the state, whose contribution since 1990 has not kept pace with the cost of learning, either.) In fact, the Schmoke administration's target budget for fiscal 1996 falls $900,000 below what would be needed just to operate at the current level of services.

All governments are strapped for funds. All city departments can make a case for more money. But nowhere do small budget increases go as far, in terms of the number of citizens who benefit, as those invested in public libraries. Many big cities spend twice or more per capita on their libraries compared with Baltimore, whose motto, if this keeps up, will be "The City That Redes."

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