Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library: A neglected treasure reaches for its destiny

November 12, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Cleveland, Ohio, which can't afford a football team, annually provides its library system with $23 in local public funding for each city resident. That is close to twice per capita the $13 a year Baltimore's government gives the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Something like $200 million in public funds is being spent to get a football team to move from Cleveland to Baltimore. The Pratt is already here. It should do so well.

Seek out people who first discovered in a public library that humans are not born with restraining walls around their capacities for achievement. Who are they? Nobel laureates and living saints, the most inspired of political leaders and university founders, artists of immortal works and easers of human miseries - some large portion of the natural nobility of this planet.

Baltimore's burgeoning 'burbs outspend even Cleveland. The Baltimore County library system, for example, gets an annual $24 per capita, according to undisputed comparisons gathered by a Pratt support group. Down the line, Washington, D.C., spends $33 per capita. Boston kicks in $32; Milwaukee, $28. And on and on.

Despite its parsimony, Baltimore is doubly blessed.

First, by the basic plant and collection founded by Enoch Pratt, an immensely generous Baltimore merchant who originally funded the system, which first opened its doors on Jan. 5, 1886, fTC a mere 110 years ago. (Do raise a glass to Good Ol' Enoch on Jan. 5, and write a check before swallowing.)

People do it

And second, by remarkable administration and support: professionals and amateurs, librarians and board members, executives and volunteers.

The guiding star in that firmament is Carla D. Hayden. She came to the Pratt as director just a few months more than two years ago, stepping into what has been deemed, without known dissent, as a disastrous state of neglect, decay and maladministration. She had been Chicago's top professional librarian for two years and before that a scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. She earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago.

She is the sort of person people attach fire words to: hot shot, fireball, bombshell. Wrong metaphor. She's cool, yet warm, one of the most indomitably cheerful and positively driven people I know.

"There come times," she says often, a jolly mantra that defiantly recognizes the temptations to cave or crumple. "There come times - well, when you just get up, go in and go to it."

And she has gone to it at the Pratt. When she arrived, in July 1993, the library's board felt it was important to look forward dramatically, in order to move forward responsibly and intelligently. A sweeping strategic initiative was begun.

Under Dr. Hayden's overall direction, individually and in a variety of working panels, library staff and board members, support groups and some outsiders dug deep into questions of needs, community, shifting technology. The general public was drawn in by focus groups, conferences, a survey of some 5,000 library users. There were meetings, some intense, with leaders and members of Friends of the Pratt, and other vital support groups.

The leadership team of the library and the board then drafted "Strategic Plan 1996-1999." It was released through the mayor's office last month, and is available through the main library.

The public has been asked to make comment and suggestions, by mail, directly to Dr. Hayden (at 400 Cathedral St., Baltimore 21201) or by attending community hearings, two last week, and the last of which is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. this Tuesday at the central library.

The final version of the plan will be released in mid-December. Some of the initiatives are ongoing. Some of the new ones will be launched in the first working day of the new year.

So what's the plan?

First and simply, to firm the foundations of the institutional mission. To get even better at keeping books dry and minds nourished, at making available to anybody who will bother to look and ask 2.2 million different books, 10,330 periodical titles on paper, 600,000 titles on microfilm, some 39,000 videos, films and audio recordings.

Info revolution

But the plan reaches into a daunting and dazzling future.

The top dazzler is the electronic information revolution. Research resources online are fast outgrowing print and paper. Books will endure, but for many types of information, printed sources are fast becoming too slow, space-consuming and unwieldy for routine use.

Dr. Hayden and her colleagues feel the Pratt is at the forefront of information technology nationally. They are eager to stay ahead. But this medium expansion imposes a particularly heavy budget burden, creating, in essence, an inescapable demand for a dual system. The problem of paying for information has doubled.

That's only one of several equally daunting demands, the very highest of which is for the library to reach out, with inspiration and instruction, into communities festering from illiteracy and poor education.

All that will be done, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. Libraries, and none more than the Pratt, are among the unexcelled treasuries and treasures of Earth. Biographies and memoirs sing out that they are so often the single, central place where great and good men and women first experienced the ecstasy of freeing a lone consciousness to rise and soar forever from the mundane.

The shepherds who tend and nourish libraries stand among the heroes. Be one. And while you're at it, instruct your friendly local politician to join you - or else you'll squash him, her or it like a bug.

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