Balancing duty to books and computers Baltimore region: Libraries face challenge to maintain high ground in a high-tech world.

August 03, 1998

IT IS ENTIRELY appropriate that the Baltimore area now cheers for the only pro football team whose name was inspired by a literary character.

From Baltimore, whose Enoch Pratt Free Library was lauded as a "pioneer" by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century, to suburban systems, which are among the busiest and best-supported in the nation, this region has a grand tradition when it comes to public libraries.

What follows is a summary of challenges area systems face as they try to maintain that high ground:

Building anew in Baltimore

The inauguration in November of a large library in Cherry Hill will mark the first time in 27 years that the Pratt has opened a newly built branch. Another generation won't pass before more bricks and mortar are laid.

A $42 million renovation of the central library is slated to begin in the year 2000. Also, the Pratt last week held hearings on the first of four regional libraries to replace some of the 26 branches, many of which are old and inadequate.

The number of branches doesn't accurately reflect the Pratt's scope, though. The library has satellites in Police Athletic League and senior centers, as well as a growing Internet connection.

"We really cover the waterfront," says Director Carla D. Hayden. Under her leadership the past five years, the Pratt has spent much time in internal restructuring and retooling for the electronic age.

In spite of some budget-related cutbacks, the city system maintains longer hours of operation than any in the state.

Baltimore's strapped government also continues to pay half the cost of the Pratt as Maryland's main resource library, as it promised the state 20 years ago. Those points help support Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's sometimes-mocked claim that Baltimore should be "the city that reads."

New era in Towson

Like most public library systems, Baltimore County is grappling with technological change: Should libraries scrimp on traditional materials to concentrate resources for online services? How can the system provide patrons with computer assistance when many librarians are not comfortable with computers and funds to hire more expert staff are limited?

Baltimore County library Director James H. Fish, who has led the 15-branch system for nearly two years, offers a balanced approach as the system marches further into the computer age. "People use [computers] to get information. But you can't get knowledge from an electronic database, and you can't curl up with a CD-ROM," he says. "Our goal is to make sure we have the right equipment to give people access to the information they need."

The cost of technology promises to be the most vexing problem. Equipment isn't the only, nor perhaps even the main, problem. Staffing is. Four branches have "computer centers" - stations with PCs and a staff member to help with computer-related questions. But demand remains unmet at other libraries. The system relies on volunteers and reallocates what is the largest staff in the state - to free up librarians trained to provide computer services.

Straddling eras in Anne Arundel

"We have one foot in the future and one in the past," says Ronald S. Kozlowski, director of Anne Arundel County's 15-branch system. Anne Arundel libraries have established telephone and computer access systems allowing residents to use the library without leaving their homes. Still, the branches are often full.

Though the system's budget has kept pace with needs, only four branches - in Annapolis, Crofton, Severna Park and North County - are open on Sundays.

With another $600,000 annually, Mr. Kozlowski could open 11 smaller, community branches on Sundays and extend hours at the others. County officials should strongly consider it.

Carroll's been a leader

"Give them what they want and they will come," says Carroll County library Director Linda Mielke, with the conviction of a born saleswoman. "We're not going to be just a reference library; we want to reach out to more people."

That mission for the five-branch system with 300,000 volumes aims to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population.

Carroll County government may have a reputation for frugality, but it lavishes money on its libraries. It spends nearly $38 per resident, more than any other jurisdiction. Residents, in turn, check out more books than anywhere in Maryland, 21 per person per year.

Bel Air's new gem

The main branch of the Harford County library used to be a place only a Bel Air meter maid could love. It was cramped and had so little parking that patrons often made mad dashes to return books to avoid a ticket.

The facility's struggle to keep up with the burgeoning suburb around it worsened as politicians dithered over whether to renovate or build elsewhere.

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