Enoch Pratt to shut 5 sites

Insufficient funds, population cited in city library's move

`It makes me totally sick'

More branches likely to be closed in next five years

March 08, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The Enoch Pratt Free Library announced plans yesterday to close five of its 26 Baltimore branches by the end of the year, and as many as five more by 2006.

The plan, denounced by library patrons citywide, could mean a reduction of nearly 40 percent of the city's libraries within the next five years.

Pratt Director Carla Hayden said the library has not chosen the branches that will close. The decision, she said, was made based on a shrinking budget and the city's dwindling population. Baltimore's population, now roughly 600,000, has been losing an estimated 1,000 residents per month.

"No librarian wants to close a library," Hayden said, "but no librarian wants to preside over a declining system."

Enoch Pratt representatives plan to meet with residents at four library branches next month to discuss data they've collected on how useful branches are to their communities.

The data include the number of visitors, the condition and size of buildings and the population of neighborhoods.

Officials intend to elicit feedback from the community, then make a final decision at the library's Board of Directors' June meeting about which branches will be shuttered.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said closing branch buildings does not weaken the Enoch Pratt.

"How good a library is is not determined by how many branches it has," O'Malley said. "The Enoch said, look, we need to become leaner, stronger and better."

Some residents were incensed when they heard the news yesterday that more libraries are closing.

"Unbelievable," said community activist Jane Shipley, who lives in Charles Village near a branch that closed in 1997. "It makes me totally sick. I could just spit nickels."

Another branch, in southwest Baltimore's Morrell Park, also closed in 1997, but has stayed vacant while the Charles Village branch was turned into a learning center.

Baltimore's library system, owned by the city but operated as a nonprofit by a private board, announced plans in 1997 to move toward a system of a few mid-sized regional branches, rather than many small neighborhood centers.

A library based on this model is planned for 2003 at Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street, in Highlandtown.

Shipley, who home-schooled her children, said that closing neighborhood branches puts a roadblock between children and books.

"The library system is headed to ruin," she said. "We're headed to a suburban model where you have to get in your car and drive. That wipes out access to children."

But library officials say they're stretched thin, and have been operating with about $5.1 million less than requested from the city over a five-year period.

The library's current budget is $27 million, 49 percent of which comes from the city.

For fiscal year 2002, which starts in July, library officials are asking for $19.8 million from the city, but think they will receive about $2 million less, said Gordon Krabbe, the library's director of administrative services.

"Every year, we've been hobbling along, trying to keep the library open and never really having the money," library spokeswoman Judy Cooper said. "We've had to do a lot of things to pick up the slack. At some point, you have to say you can't do it anymore."

The library system spends about 10 percent of its total budget on books, far below industry standard, which is 15 percent to 20 percent, she said.

It wasn't that way in the past, when as many as 39 library branches and neighborhood centers served the city. In the 1950s, Baltimore's population reached 900,000, but has since fallen by about 33 percent. About one-third of those, 200,000, hold library cards now, Hayden said.

The branch that readers visit most is Hamilton, which had about 94,500 visitors in fiscal year 2000, library statistics show.

The branch with the least daily traffic that year was Canton in the southeast, which had 8,856 visitors. Next was Clifton in the city's northeast section, 13,824; followed by Washington Village, 14,056.

There were more than a million visitors at all 26 city branches for fiscal year 2000.

Low attendance, however, is just one indicator that a branch may close. Another is size. Library officials have said branches should have at least 6,000 square feet. Currently, five do not: Clifton, Hampden, Roland Park, Highlandtown and Washington Village.

The four public meetings on library closings will be at 6 p.m. at these branches: April 10, Northwood, 4420 Loch Raven Blvd.; April 12, Brooklyn, 300 E. Patapsco Ave.; April 18, Reisterstown Road, 6310 Reisterstown Road; and April 19, Patterson Park, 158 N. Linwood Ave.

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