Pratfalls to navigate for city library

Closings: Budget woes force hard choices for Enoch Pratt, but there may be a solution in private sector.

March 09, 2001

FIRST, A TRUTH: Baltimore can't afford the public library system it runs.

Not when Mayor Martin O'Malley is calling for expanded police protection and vigilance. Not when a looming budget shortfall has him pondering an income tax increase and deep cuts throughout city government. Not when the extensive branch system of the Enoch Pratt Free Library -- built for a city of 1 million people -- is straining its resources.

And yet, it's also true that local libraries are part of a community's soul. More than book depositories with friendly lending policies, libraries provide learning and enrichment for both young and old. They are safe after-school havens for children. They can be wonderful social outlets for the elderly.

So what to do?

Rather than approaching this as a zero-sum game, as the mayor and Pratt director Carla Hayden have done so far, here's an alternative: Why not band together and start leaning on the region's private and charitable sectors to help preserve the Pratt?

Our business community, for example, could be enlisted in a grand campaign to support the Pratt with sufficient funds to maintain the branch system and even upgrade resources at the Central Branch downtown. Area corporations have already demonstrated their generosity with regard to such interests as the United Way campaign. Why not repeat that pattern with libraries?

Baltimore also is home to quite a few foundations, some of which could chip in to preserve the Enoch Pratt. Some may already support library activities; why not increase the giving or even target it toward the operation of individual branches?

The two conflicting truths about our library system call for some creativity, a little imaginative thinking and long-term solution planning. Arguing over how many branches -- or which ones -- to close won't get us anywhere. Neither will a power struggle between the library folks and the mayor.

Let's support the Pratt to preserve this city jewel for generations to come.

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