On paper, not online Magazines: The central Pratt library downtown has one of the country's biggest and most wide-ranging collections of periodicals, from the famous to the obscure.

April 04, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Here's the car nut who appears every week on the day Automotive News arrives.

There's the diminutive New Yorker fan who can't reach the New Yorker shelf.

There are the folks who come in Mondays with a telling malapropism, requesting the "unemployment section" from the Sunday papers.

And then there are the mysterious visitors perusing obscure titles: American Funeral Director. Perfumer & Flavorist. Poe Studies. Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Marcia Dyshart gets curious. But she does not interrogate the patrons.

"It's sort of a librarian's ethic not to ask why they want it," says Dyshart, chief of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's periodical department. "But sometimes you feel it would be fascinating to find out."

In an era of instant, online information, there is a comforting archaism about these piles of magazines that arrive monthly or weekly -- periodically -- by postal truck. Eventually, after binding, they descend to the underground stacks, becoming part of the foundation of the library and the city.

A magazine was just a storehouse, for valuable goods or armaments, until 1731, when The Gentleman's Magazine, or Monthly Intelligencer, turned the word to metaphor. It listed some topics and promised "a Monthly Collection to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces on the Subjects abovemention'd."

The central Pratt on Cathedral Street, then, is a veritable magazine of magazines, receiving about 1,800 periodicals -- more than all but the biggest public libraries and covering a more eclectic range of topics than university libraries.

Here on the mezzanine, you can find periodicals you never imagined existed, unless their niche happens to be your niche.

There's Gifted Child Quarterly, where proud parents can keep up with their geniuses. There's Rotor & Wing, a magazine hovering over the helicopter industry. There's Dispute Resolution Journal, which presumably could prevent many a bar brawl, if only the drunks would read it.

The alphabet makes for some strange juxtapositions. Reptiles lurk a shelf above Restaurant Hospitality. The learned literary discussions of Modern Philology are sandwiched between the shoptalk of Modern Paint and Coatings and Modern Plastics.

Silent News, a newspaper for the deaf and hard of hearing, is piled beside Sing Out! The snowy slopes of Ski adjoin the turquoise waters of Skin Diver.

But just who wanders in from traffic-clogged Cathedral Street to read Wallace's Farmer, with its cover story on "Beans that Fight White Mold," or to skim the combine ads in Tractor & Implement?

The answer might be Wanda Stefan of Highlandtown, a self-described "middle-aged mom back in school." She's taking her lunch hour from her job at Mercy Medical Center to research mad cow disease for a medical ethics course. In fact, the Pratt's surprising agricultural collection doesn't quite meet her needs: She has a citation from Countryside and Small Stock Journal, not available here.

Who needs The Journal of Mammology? Bill Corliss does. He's a regular customer from Glen Arm; from these shelves have come much of the contents of the 53 popular-science books he has written since 1962.

Today, he has found an item on the evolution of cicadas in The American Naturalist; BioScience has another on a tree with both wet-season and dry-season leaves.

"Their collection, especially the older journals, is fantastic," says Corliss, who also publishes a newsletter, Science Frontiers.

And the Pratt serves not just Baltimore. As the State Library Resource Center -- SLRC, pronounced "slirk" -- it shares with smaller Maryland libraries and patrons from Deep Creek Lake to Assateague Island.

"We deliver every day -- electronically, by mail and by truck," says spokeswoman Averil J. Kadis.

A historical novelist on the Eastern Shore, for instance, regularly orders articles from 19th century editions of Harper's Weekly.

Dyshart taught junior high school in Kansas before switching to library science. She oversees a realm of 12 employees, who add a title here, trim one there.

"When Gleanings in Bee Culture changed to Bee Culture, we were moving it when we said, 'Why do we need a whole magazine on this?' We canceled, which probably made the bee people mad," Dyshart says. But none buzzed.

The Pratt's budgetary squeeze has not been too severe in the subscription area, perhaps because magazines are cheap compared with technology.

"One $3,000 computer can be used by one person," says Dyshart. "Or you can subscribe to 100 magazines for $30 a year."

So the breadth of the collection seems likely to last. Dyshart herself has never navigated the whole universe on these shelves. Once, in her previous job in the Pratt's business, science and technology department, she vowed to get to know just the periodicals then housed in that department.

"I said I'll take six titles to the desk every night, go through the alphabet and really learn the collection," she recalls. She made it through the C's before the press of patrons distracted her.

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