Fewer city library branches Time for change: Pratt system must meet needs of today's patron.

August 21, 1996

EVERY TIME THEY look up, it seems to Baltimoreans, someone is trying to take away a part of what they had, what they were. Neighborhood residents don't want to see their branch libraries close. Even the people who rarely go inside. For them, the branch libraries represent constancy in neighborhoods beset by flux. But the illusion is too expensive to continue. The branch system must change if the Enoch Pratt Free Library is to survive.

This subject has been broached before, each time meeting stiff public resistance. Tying the fate of the library branches to the annual politicized debate over the Pratt budget has not helped. Talk about closing branches typically subsides when sufficient funds are secured for one more year's operation.

And yet long-term financial stability requires a decision about the Pratt's branches, a decision based not only on economics but on what a modern urban library system should have to best serve the people who need to use its resources.

Within a few weeks, Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden will present a detailed facilities plan to the library board that will include closing some branches and building new structures to serve more neighborhoods. Preliminary reports indicate the proposal calls for "kiosks," patterned after automated teller machines, and moving library materials to community centers and public schools, which would increase the importance of those places to their neighborhoods.

The Pratt is down to 28 branches. It had 32 in 1987, the last time a branch was permanently closed. Some remaining branches, charming old structures with leaky roofs and faulty air-conditioning, are ill suited to house the modern technology that today's library patrons crave. Some need expensive improvements to meet federal law requiring them to be accessible to the disabled. Others simply are in the wrong location to attract the additional people who might use them if they were modernized.

The chore facing Ms. Hayden is formidable. She has to convince a public tired of people taking things away from it that closing some library branches will be an improvement. To succeed, she will need the support of the mayor and of City Council members who in the past have found it more politically expedient to join the popular throng than provide leadership. The bottom line must be what is best for the people of Baltimore, which is to keep the Pratt Library strong.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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