Branch's final chapter?

Library: The tiny Clifton branch is a refuge in a troubled neighborhood, but it might be among five to be closed this summer. The first of four public meetings on the question will be held tonight.

April 10, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Ask Brooke Brown and Brionne Porter why they go almost every day to the tiny Clifton branch of the public library at East 20th and North Wolfe streets, and they will tell you volumes.

"It's quiet and peaceful here, so we can concentrate without sisters, nephews, nieces," said Brionne, 11, looking up at the columns on the steps leading to the 1916 brick building, branch No. 18 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and perhaps a candidate for closing this summer.

Starting at 6 tonight at the Northwood branch, 4420 Loch Raven Blvd., four public meetings this month will address the question of which five branches, out of 26, will close.

The question is not whether but which, said Judy Cooper, the Pratt's spokeswoman, because of a $5 million budget shortfall. "We can't go on any longer. There's nothing else to cut," she said.

Cooper said a list of the 10 branches most eligible for closing will be presented tonight and that public comment from the public meetings will influence a final decision by Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt's director, and the library board in June.

Pratt officials estimate that closing five branches will save up to $1.1 million in annual operating costs. No jobs will be cut, Cooper said. The total annual budget for the library system, from city, state and federal funds, is $26.7 million.

Size is a key factor in selecting which branches might be closed. Pratt officials have set a minimum of 6,000 square feet as a guideline. Clifton has 5,867 square feet. Clifton also was lowest in circulation, another criterion, with 7,533 books checked out last year compared with 88,071 at the highest-ranking branch, in Hamilton.

In Pigtown, the Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council and Paul's Place soup kitchen are organizing a free bus trip to and from the meeting at the Brooklyn branch, at 6 p.m. Thursday at 300 E. Patapsco Ave.

The Washington Village branch library - the smallest in the system at 2,400 square feet - could also be in danger of closing.

Second District Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young and others say the Clifton branch is a rare beacon in a disadvantaged neighborhood, with drug dealers and vacant housing just around the corner on North Avenue.

"I hope they look at what that branch brings to kids who have a long way to go to other branches," Young said yesterday. "From all indications, they're going to close Clifton. But other than that [library], there's no safe haven."

Brooke and Brionne say their families have no cars. "We like this library because all we have to do is walk up the street," Brooke said.

The same is true of Antwan Bond, 10, whose family has no access to a car.

Many Clifton children sign up for 30-minute stints on the Internet. Yesterday afternoon, about a dozen children and one adult were in the branch.

"It's a hangout spot and a learning area and everything," Brionne said. Without it, she and Brooke aren't sure where they would go or what they would do with their free time. Other libraries are about a mile away.

Clifton Park, right up the road, doesn't appeal to them. "I don't like sitting on grass," Brionne said. "It's cool here in summer."

Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.

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