Library outpost in a museum

Satellite: The Pratt Exploration Center in Port Discovery is the system's smallest site. Its primary focus is children.

April 11, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Sitting cross-legged on the carpet of Baltimore's smallest public library outpost, Annette Mahoney laughed alongside a throng of children and boldly sang "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."

The 23-year-old, an aspiring children's librarian, was playing host for story time during her part-time job at the Pratt Exploration Center -- the library within Port Discovery.

It opened with the museum on Dec. 29 as the smallest satellite in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. Although its selection of books, geared toward 7- to 12-year-olds, mostly ties into Port Discovery exhibits, children and adults can check out books and have materials transferred from other city branches.

"It is a unique collaboration between Enoch Pratt and Port Discovery to create a Pratt presence in an area we wouldn't normally be in," said James Welbourne, deputy director of the library system.

Betsy Diamant-Cohen, the exploration center librarian, said it had more than 5,000 visitors in February, and answered more than 900 research questions. Although an admission is charged for the museum, visiting the public library -- open every day from 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. -- is free.

Diamant-Cohen said she had been frustrated while working as a children's librarian in a museum in Israel. She said people wanted to check out books and couldn't because it was a research library.

"I came in with the intention of us being special and having a museum at our fingertips," she said of the Pratt Exploration Center.

As with other Pratt branches, books, ranging from stories about ancient Egypt to the popular "Pop-o-Mania, How to Make Pop-Up Cards and Optical Tricks," can be checked out for three weeks and returned to any public library in Maryland. People of all ages, as long as they are Maryland residents, can sign up for city library cards at the Port Discovery site.

"It doesn't qualify as a full branch because it doesn't have larger collections or meeting room space," Welbourne said.

Gordon Krabbe, chief fiscal officer for the Pratt, said the library system and Port Discovery have a joint operating agreement through June 2000.

"We'll operate it with our staff and they'll provide the utilities and space," Krabbe said.

He said a private donation to Port Discovery paid for the initial construction, books and computers, while the library system is paying for four employees.

After finding donors and grants, Krabbe said, he believes the library system will be signing a new contract with the museum next year -- an agreement that will be based on usage of the library, its costs and the future revenue of Port Discovery.

The Pratt Exploration Center overlooks the museum lobby. Inside the Pratt's second-floor room, children can thumb through thousands of picture and fiction books -- cuddling with their parents in a room filled with oversized pillows, or on their own. They also can play educational computer games, surf the Internet, and, of course, participate in story time.

Nearly a dozen children sat in a circle with Mahoney on a recent Saturday afternoon. While they sang about alligators, caterpillars and frogs, a few parents watched -- including Mahoney's, who drove downtown from their home in Sparks to see her performance. Other parents explored the Internet at computer stations.

Monty Burke checked out Web sites and played games on the computer while his daughters Asia, 5, and India, 7, participated in story time.

Mahoney said the moral of Saturday's story was to be happy with yourself. The children heard about Arthur, the dog who tried to be all sorts of animals so someone would adopt him, and listened as Mahoney suggested that they love themselves just the way they are.

"It's very important to me to pick stories with morals," she said.

Rochelle Roberts, a mother of two from Montreal visiting family in Baltimore, said story time was a much needed "downtime" for her children Jordan, 4, and Lauren, 9 months.

Diamant-Cohen has a number of goals for the small library, including a children's film series this summer, and having librarians use story time as a way to entertain children waiting, sometimes impatiently, in museum lines.

During the week, Diament-Cohen said, she attracts crowds by skipping through the museum banging a tambourine, announcing story time. Saturday or Sunday afternoons are Mahoney's days to read and drum up an audience.

Once determined to become a reference librarian, Mahoney joked that she is convinced she is better suited to wearing a turban, singing songs and teaching.

Mahoney refused to take all the credit for being a dramatic storyteller.

Since birth, she said, her mother, Joy Mahoney, a nursery school teacher, was her mentor, singing songs, telling stories and using fun props. Mahoney said she copies her mother's routines.

"I was very nervous because the career path I've chosen, I'm very new at," Mahoney said after her 20-minute performance. She will graduate from Towson University with a major in philosophy in June, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in library sciences at Catholic University in Washington.

School groups and families can book a story time session by calling the Pratt Exploration Center at 410-864-2716.

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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