Library to speed study of branches Pratt evaluation to focus on mayor's ideas for closings

May 02, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Marcia Myers | JoAnna Daemmrich and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In the wake of the mayor's call for an overhaul, the Enoch Pratt Free Library has agreed to accelerate a study of its neighborhood network with the goal of improving services, even if it means closing some library branches.

The study will focus on concerns voiced in recent days by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who suggested Baltimore's public library system might do better by shutting about a third of its 28 branches and consolidating its diminishing resources.

His comments have provoked an emotional debate over the local libraries. Built at a time when each neighborhood had its own movie theater, post office and market, many branches are struggling today with scant book-buying budgets and too few readers.

After a phone call from the mayor yesterday, Robert Hillman, president of the Pratt trustees, said he was reassured. They agreed an evaluation is necessary before any changes are made.

"It was a very positive conversation," Mr. Hillman said. "I don't know what the proper number of branches is, I don't think the mayor does, I don't think anyone does. We agreed that a smaller number might be appropriate if they were in the right place and they were the right branches."

But the Pratt's vision of change might be quite different from that of the mayor, who is trying to find savings in a city with a shrinking population and tax base.

Mr. Schmoke has wanted for several years to trim Baltimore's library network, the largest in Maryland, by shutting smaller, poorly used branches. This year, he proposed a much wider reorganization with a twofold goal: to hold the line on city spending, and improve the remaining branches and the central library downtown.

"I've been trying to emphasize the need for quality service, rather than a specific quantity of branches," Mr. Schmoke said in an interview yesterday. "I understand the sensitivity, but we've got to have this discussion on the future rather than be focused on Baltimore of the 1950s."

However, some library officials suggested that the number of branches might even increase as a result of the study, to be finished this year.

Library spokeswoman Averil J. Kadis said it was "unlikely" that the result would be closing 10 branches, an idea of the mayor's. "People in neighborhoods want their libraries where they can walk to them," she said.

Quality service, not the number of branches, is key, she said. "If it takes six more or 10 fewer, the important thing is that everybody that needs library service is going to get it."

Mr. Schmoke said he supports building several regional branches, but only if old branches are closed. The idea was proposed last fall by a consultant for the Pratt, who found many of the branches required extensive repairs.

But Mr. Hillman warned that shutting old branches and building new ones "might cost more than the [system] we have now."

Nevertheless, he said he was pleased that the mayor said he was willing to explore construction funding in the next few years. One option is to issue bonds.

"This is the first indication that he's willing to consider that kind of capital funding," Mr. Hillman said.

Among the ideas the mayor discussed yesterday was to build a large library on the grounds of Polytechnic Institute and Western High School in place of the Hampden and Roland Park branches.

He also mentioned shutting four branches: Highlandtown, St. Paul, Clifton Park and Morrell Park. The consultant had recommended they be closed because they are underused, too close to another library or too small.

Yet library officials yesterday described Highlandtown and Roland Park as two of their most active branches and said they require new buildings or major additions.

Mr. Schmoke said he became more certain of the need to revamp the library system after reading the consultant's report, prepared for the Pratt at a cost of $39,000 by Providence Associates Inc., a library consulting firm based in Denton, Texas.

Mr. Schmoke's far-reaching reorganization plan has more attention this year because he is pushing an income tax increase as a way to protect Baltimore's cultural institutions from severe budget cuts.

Though library advocates and some community leaders were infuriated, Mr. Schmoke has drawn some support from City Council members and residents.

"The population has decreased, and we really have more [libraries] than we need," said Councilwoman Sheila Dixon of West Baltimore.

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. of East Baltimore agrees the Highlandtown branch should be closed because there are two more widely used libraries within two miles. "It's very expensive to keep these libraries open, and we've got to start making tough decisions and tough cuts," he said.

Pub Date: 5/02/96

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