Enoch Pratt Free Library officials yesterday touted a plan to open four regional library centers, but they have yet to sell the idea to some community members who are upset that another part of the plan would likely include closing at least five of the 28 branches.
"I think we're going to lose a lot of urban [readers] if we focus solely on these 'mega-branches,' " said Judith Hart-McLean, co-chair of the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, St. Paul Street Branch. "Thirty-eight percent of the city does not drive."
Starting next month, Pratt officials will hold a series of meetings with community members to talk about issues and concerns involving the plan, which was announced yesterday.
Pratt hopes to begin building the first two of four large library centers, in each quadrant of the city, in 1999. The library centers would be at least 30,000 square feet each, compared to the current branch range of 1,500 square feet to 14,000 square feet.
Hand-in-hand with the new libraries, computer stations are being installed in Police Athletic League centers with a collection of books.
The stations will allow children to use the Internet and reserve library items. Vans with books and computers will travel to such places as day care centers.
Kiosks with access to the Internet, useful government forms and the library catalog will be available at Mondawmin Mall and the Inner Harbor in the fall.
Virginia K. Adams, chair of the library board of trustees, said the Pratt plans to close some branches and remodel others because the system isn't working. Librarians are shuttling back and forth between branches to keep them staffed, she said, and not all the branches are open every day.
"It will be much more effective to have some of our staff operate the [regional] centers longer hours every day," she said.
Once sites for the regional library centers have been found, the nearby branches deemed least effective -- such as those smaller than 6,000 square feet -- would be closed, Adams said. She said the library was expected to end up with at least five fewer branches in the system. Which branches would be closed will be decided in midsummer, said Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden.
Some library activists are concerned that fewer branches would mean fewer readers -- particularly those who do not own cars or cannot afford public transportation.
"We have extreme poverty" in Baltimore, said Hart-McLean, who lives in the 2600 block of N. Calvert St. "I just can't see the little kids playing around me every day finding ways to get out to the mega-branches."
Hart-McLean said more than 900 people have signed a petition to save the St. Paul branch, an older library that she is concerned may be one of the ones to go.
David Yaffe, a member of several library groups, suggested that rather than spend the money, estimated at $35 million to $45 million for the regional centers, the library should encourage walk-ins by retaining existing branches and building others in those parts of town without them.
"These new libraries are primarily going to be for people who drive," he said.
But Pratt officials say their plan would make library resources more accessible to the community because of the electronic stations and kiosks scattered around the city.
"Many people in Baltimore have never been able to walk to a branch library," said Adams, who said using funds for smaller branches would not change that. "We look at this as a way of expanding services and giving people options that they don't have now. This will really be a much better library system."
She said officials will meet with community members to help them "visualize" what the plan will entail, and Pratt staff members may take interested people to a new Columbia library to show them the amenities of a modern branch.
Officials also will meet with communities whose branches may be closed because of the regional library centers, Hayden said.
The first meeting will be Aug. 2 at the Friends of the Library's regular get-together at the Central Library.
Pub Date: 7/22/97