Carla Hayden has restored some of the library's former glory, but her toughest test lies ahead as she confronts the need to close branches.


August 11, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

When the Enoch Pratt Public Library trustees meet in the board room at the Central Library, director Carla D. Hayden takes a seat on the north side of the table, her back to the portrait of the library's benefactor and namesake, so he appears to be staring over her shoulder. Occasionally, she steals a glance back at him and -- she swears -- his expression changes.

"Literally, he sometimes looks calmer," she says. "Other times, he looks like, 'What are you doing?'"

On this particular day, the board room is empty and the sky is the pale, washed-out yellow that follows a summer storm in Baltimore. In this eerie light, the eyes of the old industrialist appear to beam at the latest steward of his beloved library, although his mouth remains stern.

For three years, those who love and care about Baltimore's 110-year-old library system have been beaming in the presence of Carla Hayden. From small, tangible tasks to sweeping institutional changes, she has already put her mark on the institution that H.L. Mencken once called the city's "cock-eyed stepchild." Library Journal, in selecting her as librarian of the year for 1995, speculated that her name will one day join the roster of its greatest directors: Joseph Wheeler, Edwin Castagna, Emerson Greenaway.

But now, Hayden, with the board's backing, is poised to make the one change that is, in the words of Peggy Sullivan, a former American Library Association president who started her career at the Pratt, "the quickest way for a director to ruin his or her career."

Carla Hayden is preparing to close branches.

Since 1987, when three branches closed after a bruising public debate replete with accusations of racism and political favoritism, the Pratt has not closed any branch permanently. But when Hayden faces her board next month, she is expected to present a detailed facilities plan that will include the end of some branches, while building new structures that would serve more neighborhoods.

"There will be controversy, there's no mistaking it," says board chairman Robert S. Hillman. "People just don't like closing libraries."

It is hoped the call for new buildings, which would be the first since 1971, will help cushion the blow. Don't think of it as losing a branch, Hayden says; think of it as gaining new state-of-the-art centers that will better serve the city. Think of a city with library "kiosks," patterned on automatic teller machines, and libraries housed in community centers or public schools. Think of a library that's available 24 hours a day, like the Pratt's current Internet services, with its 30,000 hits a day.

"Closing in itself is not a panacea," she says carefully. "The question is, what do we need now?"

Growing up, she was the girl with her nose in a book. Of course. Shy, she carried her books everywhere -- Nancy Drew, historical romances -- in order to hide behind them. Even in the bosom of her close-knit family, she needed a book to survive gatherings. To this day, she remembers the odd bits of knowledge she picked up from all that reading ("Rushes, they were always changing the rushes in those castles"), as well as the two nicknames her hobby earned her, Grandma and Squirrel.

Fascinated with librarian stereotypes, she muses on how the Pratt could use this image in marketing. "Imagine a librarian, pulling off her glasses and letting her hair down. If we could only get 15 or 20 seconds during the Super Bowl -- 'Not your same old librarian.' "

And yet there is little today that is "bookish" about Carla Hayden, or suggestive of an old maid librarian. At 43, she looks younger, with short, spiky hair and sophisticated suits, worn with dramatic pins and earrings. She could be a successful lawyer, or a CEO.

Watch her, for example, appearing before the City Council, answering questions about her budget, or at meetings for the various local boards to which she belongs. Watch her bouncing ideas off the Pratt's first-ever director of development, Caroline Senatore, hired to raise private funds to augment the Pratt's virtually static budget. She is a CEO. She answers to a board; her stockholders are the taxpayers. She even referred to her plans for the Pratt as "right-sizing."

Raising money, managing a staff of almost 400, working with a private board of trustees, placating politicians -- hers is an intensely political job. Yet it was a desire to leave behind "politics with a capital P," as Hayden says, that brought her to Baltimore in a strangely public fracas not usually associated with head librarians. "The tale of two cities," she calls it.

Chicago vs. Baltimore

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