Pratt improvements will include opening Fridays $45 million approved for renovations, annex

March 31, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

For the lack of $800,000 a year, the front doors to Enoch Pratt Free Library headquarters on Cathedral Street have been locked every Friday since December 1991. Many is the Friday that library staffers watch patrons yank on the doors in vain.

"I was walking by one Friday when a mother with a 4-year-old and a book bag was trying to get in to use the children's room," says Pratt director Carla D. Hayden. "I had to tell her it would be open tomorrow."

A brighter tomorrow -- courtesy of the Maryland state treasury -- appears to be around the corner for Baltimore's 112-year-old library system.

In about a year, the Pratt plans to reopen Fridays but the bigger news is what will await the public once it gets in. A $45 million project has been approved to renovate Pratt Central and build an annex to hook it to the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped on Park Avenue.

An architect could be selected as early as July, and while completion of the 44,000-square-foot addition is not expected until 2003, the Pratt is using the momentum of a flush state budget and an administration partial to libraries to go after enough state funding to reopen the Pratt on Fridays.

Under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, state funding to local library systems has risen from $8.25 per capita to $9.25 -- a $440,000 boost to the Pratt -- with incremental increases expected to reach $11.50 in three years. At the same time, in this age of the Internet and cyber-encyclopedias, library officials report that circulation of public materials rose by a million items last year as Marylanders borrowed 46 million books, videos and audiotapes.

Since 1971, Pratt Central has served as the State Library Resource Center, the main reference library in Maryland. In her quest for an extra $4 million from the state's capital budget to operate Central, Hayden has been making a simple pitch before General Assembly committees this year.

If the state is going to bless the Pratt with goodies, Hayden argues, it should kick in enough money for the public to get to those services seven days a week.

State funding to operate the Pratt as Maryland's library resource center has remained stagnant at $3.5 million since 1991, a year of drastic budget cuts in Annapolis under Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The extra $4 million, sought from the state's 1999 education budget but not likely to be funded until 2000, would bring the library's annual budget to about $25 million, split about evenly between city and state funding.

"Every Friday we watch people walk up to the door, see the sign, shake their heads and go away. We're largely closed on Fridays because of state reductions back in the early '90s," says Gordon E. Krabbe, the Pratt's chief financial officer. "An additional $4 million would go a long way to improving services, increasing hours, allow us to purchase more materials and have the kind of staffing we need to operate Central and 26 branches into the next millennium. We're optimistic we'll get it."

Maurice J. Travillian, the state librarian, believes that the Pratt -- once a model for big-city libraries before chronic budget troubles began crippling it during the past decade -- has reason to hope.

"These are better times. Back in the '80s and '90s, there were across-the-board cuts and libraries got caught up in them," says Travillian. "The nice thing about [increased per capita funding] is it's written into law. You don't have to lobby for it every year. If the Assembly pushes per capita funding beyond $11.50 to $12 like they're talking about, we'd be the third highest state in library funding behind Hawaii and Ohio."

Of the $45 million budgeted for the annex and renovations to Central -- a $30 million overhaul that would include a fire protection system for the first time in the building's 67-year history -- about $4.1 million has been spent on planning and design with nearly $10 million of construction money in the pipeline for 2000.

Other renovations will include replacement of heating and air conditioning, plumbing, lighting and telecommunications.

The $9.3 million annex -- conceived a decade ago -- would house all of the library's mainframe computers; a lab for the system's computer technicians; space for an enlarged African-American history collection housed in the Maryland Department; access to the library for the blind and handicapped; a joint shipping and receiving area for both libraries; and a state-of-the-art preservation lab to save priceless materials crumbling to dust.

"I'm really looking forward to the new equipment," says Barbara Bennett, head of the Pratt's bindery and material preservation department. "We have a lot of rare books that we haven't been able to de-acidify but the chemicals you need to use call for a lab with a fumigation hood. Now when we really want to save something, we have to go out back to the alley and do it."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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