Maryland's top-shelf library system A grand tradition: From Pratt's bold plan to the Internet age, state librarians have been at forefront.

August 02, 1998

WHEN TEEN-AGE students at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore were working on homework last spring, they didn't go to the library.

They went to the mall.

Across the street from the high school at Mondawmin Mall, amid fast-food restaurants and clothing stores, sits an Internet terminal that the Enoch Pratt Free Library set up in June. With a few keystrokes, even the touch of a finger to a screen, users can access a stream of knowledge from cyberspace.

Enoch Pratt, a 19th-century philanthropist who made a fortune in shipping and railroads, didn't envision students researching term papers at the mall when he donated books, buildings and the echoing sum of $833,333.33 in cash to the city in 1882 to begin a public library system. (He probably didn't do many term papers himself considering he left school at age 15 to make nails and mule shoes.) But the mall kiosk is very much in concert with his vision of a library that "shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who can take out the books if they handle them carefully and return them."

This is a revolutionary era for libraries, which now measure patronage not just in books borrowed, but in computer "hits." Library staffs must be more technically skilled. The quandary of the 1970s and 1980s - balancing books against demand for video and audio products - now seems quaint beside the pressure to provide expensive computer services.

"It's a fun time to be a librarian," says Carla D. Hayden, director of the Pratt. "But there's tension, too, because it's a major generational shift."

Maryland librarians have been on the cutting edge for much of this century. Today, The Sun begins a three-part editorial series about some of the challenges that face the state's library system.

Maryland ranks among the top 10 states in library circulation and spending. That position was bolstered by the legislature last winter when it voted to increase state spending on libraries by 44 percent during the next four years, from $18 million to $26 million. Librarians said that level of funding - $12 per resident - fulfilled a promise by Gov. Parris N. Glendening during his 1994 campaign.

The richest systems in Maryland - Carroll, Howard, Montgomery and Harford counties and Baltimore City - spend more than $30 per resident, including local revenue. That is 40 percent more than the average for comparably sized systems elsewhere.

"Maryland stacks up very well," says William Gordon, new executive director of the American Library Association, and formerly library director in Prince George's County.

He credits strong librarians - leaders such as Joseph L. Wheeler in the city in the 1920s and '30s, an early advocate of children's services; Nettie B. Taylor at the State Department of Education from the 1940s through the '80s, a proponent for shared resources; and Charles W. Robinson in Baltimore County in the 1960s through the '90s, who preached computerization and insisted that libraries offer the most popular books and videos to "compete" for clientele.

Mr. Gordon added that Maryland's county-based operations are more efficient than smaller, town libraries that account for most of the 15,000 public branches in the United States.

Cardholders in the state can borrow a book anywhere and return it anywhere. Maryland is among the few to have such a system. An overdue-book fine is kept by the library that collects the book, regardless of where it was withdrawn. That's astounding in a state where political boundaries are held sacrosanct. Geographic battles that have divided the General Assembly in Annapolis or hampered "regionalism" on other issues are rare among libraries.

That collaboration served Maryland librarians well a decade ago when they made plans for the ultimate device for sharing information: the Internet.

Maryland libraries went online more than a year before most of their counterparts. By last year, when 40 percent of U.S. libraries had no Internet access, Maryland libraries were completely wired. The statewide library Web site, nicknamed "Sailor," offers everything from state data to classic literature (

Most people, however, remain unaware of the resource, according to a University of Maryland survey. Libraries are still thought of as repositories of books, just as in Pratt's day.

His free library was revolutionary at a time when a few small book collections served only paid subscribers. Moreover, his institution, open to all, preceded the desegregation of Maryland public schools by three-quarters of a century.

Because most Marylanders lived in Baltimore during the first half this century, political will to build a state system was scant. A 1905 bill to form one languished for 40 years before the legislature allocated $5,000 for each county to begin a library.

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