Pratt proposing extensive changes Closely guarded plan for 'megabranches' worries some patrons

March 02, 1997|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

In late spring, the Enoch Pratt Free Library will announce the most radical transformation of Baltimore's neighborhood library system since it was founded 111 years ago.

The plan to take the Pratt through 2020 would replace an undetermined number of the city's 28 branches with up to four state-of-the-art, Internet wired, 20,000-square-foot "megabranches" with parking lots.

"We're working on a plan to take the library well into the next 20 to 25 years," says Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt director. "And then we'll present it to the public and hope there will be a lot of discussion." The Pratt board has the final say on the plan.

Already, some patrons are apprehensive about what the closely guarded plan may bring, with one longtime Pratt critic filing a complaint with the attorney general that the public library is making policy decisions in private.

"It's like fencing with a ghost. We don't know what they're doing, and we can't get them to tell us," said 25th Street resident Jane Shipley, whose complaint in January -- accusing Hayden and the Pratt board of violating Maryland's Open Meetings Law -- is under review by Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz.

Virginia Adams, an attorney serving as the trustee chair, responded with a letter arguing that the Pratt library and its board -- like the Maryland School for the Blind -- were established as private entities and may conduct business in secret despite being funded almost completely with public money.

Shipley and a few colleagues have fought to keep neighborhood branches open for more than 10 years, becoming especially active with the annual round of city budget wrangling when the Pratt has often been forced to offer service with tight or declining appropriations.

Adamant that their plan is a blueprint for the future and has nothing to do with old threats to cut service for lack of funds, Pratt officials have said that no branch will be closed before something new is built to take its place.

But Shipley, whose children have grown up walking to the St. Paul Street branch in Charles Village, can't accept the thought that any Pratt branch will close for any reason. With her old ally David Yaffe -- with whom she has stormed many a library board meeting, including the one last month -- Shipley has tried in vain to find out exactly which of the old branches will fall to make way for the new.

"They're hatching this new branch plan under wraps somewhere, and that's scary," said Shipley. "We're afraid for Highlandtown, Fells Point, St. Paul Street, Morrell Park, Clifton Park, and Waverly. They should be coming to us from the beginning, but instead they dot the I's and cross the T's in private and then deliver a baby that we've got to attack."

Pratt officials dismiss Shipley as an agitator who doesn't represent a larger public that filled out 5,000 user's surveys and attended at least two public forums on the subject. With Shipley at last month's board meeting was Mary Landry, city resident, head librarian at Dundalk Community College and a member of Shipley's Coalition for the Pratt group.

"Sadly, I think that everybody wants to do the right thing but there has been no trusted process to determine what the right thing is and how to go about doing it," said Landry, who began working on branch restructuring in 1991, the last time the library talked openly of closing branches.

"There have been years when [the coalition] has worked well with the board and our input was valued," added Landry. "My taxes fund that library, and I will contribute my time and insight for a perspective they won't get from some of their administrators. But we want the library to know: Don't discount us and don't deny our right of speech in a government assembly, which is what I consider the board to be. In some of these communities where branches may close, the library is the only thing that gives an illusion of sanctuary."

Hayden, branch chief James C. Welbourne and trustee chair Adams will not give any details about what they call a still-evolving plan, one they promise will have plenty of room for community input.

"Even when we present it in the spring, it's still going to be gray," said Welbourne, who addressed the subject at a citywide Friends of the Pratt meeting two weeks ago. "We're not going to let ourselves be locked into any specific spaces except to say that we need new buildings. You're not going to see any changes until 2,001 or 2,002 at the earliest."

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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