6th-generation Baltimorean, Iowa native unite in bid to keep library branch open Lawsuit, protests back St. Paul Street facility

September 09, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The two women are hardly alike except in their devotion to the little library around the corner from their homes in Charles Village.

Jane Shipley is an intense sixth-generation Baltimorean who home-schooled her three children, now 18, 15, and 12. Judith Hart-McLean, a reserved therapist studying for her doctorate in ministry, was raised in Iowa and moved to the city from Columbia two years ago.

They did not know each other until they became allies in a common cause to keep open the St. Paul Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, despite a decision by library officials to close it Aug. 30 because of budget cuts.

For Shipley, 48, the struggle stems from a wrenching experience as a girl growing up in Pigtown. "I was 10 years old, and my branch was closed," she recalls. "I've never gotten over that."

So strongly does Shipley feel about not letting that chapter of her past repeat itself that she is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last month to prevent the library board from closing the branch.

Hearing set next week

A hearing is scheduled next week in Baltimore Circuit Court to determine if the matter will go to trial. The Pratt was compelled to keep the St. Paul Street branch open in the meantime by court order. A branch library in Morrell Park was closed 10 days ago with no serious opposition.

While Shipley concentrates on legal issues, Hart-McLean has organized two street protests of the planned closing of the century-old library, which is one of 27 branches in the city.

At one rally, Hart-McLean wore a black suffragette-era dress and hat from her collection of turn-of-the-century clothing to dramatize the cause.

The pair has proven an effective fighting force, a case study of Margaret Mead's maxim: that the only thing that ever has changed the course of events is small groups of determined citizens.

One reason Hart-McLean chose to live in Charles Village, she said, is that she is "hooked on Victorian houses."

Her living room, decorated with period pieces of parlor furniture, has become the meeting place for strategy sessions with Shipley and others who belong to the Friends of the St. Paul Street library group.

"We were prepared for the worst," Hart-McLean said, referring to the Aug. 5 announcement of the two branch closings. "But we went into shock."

Lawyer works for free

Staging street protests was one tactic, they decided, but they resolved to take legal action as well. The group engaged Sharon Guida, who agreed to work without fees.

A key question in the legal challenge is whether the library is a private or public institution.

The Pratt board, according to court documents, regards itself as a private entity that does not have to hold all meetings and make decisions -- such as branch closings -- in public forums. But the activists argue that because it is taxpayer-supported, it is a public institution and subject to the state's open meetings law.

If the court rules that the library should comply with the Open Meetings Act, then it could void a decision reached in a closed board meeting.

'People's university'

Shipley and Hart-McLean would like to see the Pratt, which they call "the people's university," change its way of doing business.

"They can't do this without the people's permission," Shipley said of the closing.

She speaks as someone who learned to write her name as a preschooler to get her first library card.

Seeing that library close years later was not like the old saying about love:

"It's worse to lose one," she said, "than never to have had one."

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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