Pratt officials eye 11 libraries for closure

Residents at meeting told first 5 branches to close in summer

April 11, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Enoch Pratt Free Library officials issued a list last night of 11 neighborhood library branches that are candidates for closure, sparking an outcry of protest at a spirited public meeting in Northwood.

The endangered branches, which tend to be the smallest or oldest, are located throughout the city. They are: Canton, Clifton, Dundalk, Fells Point, Forest Park, Gardenville, Govans, Highlandtown, Hollins-Payson, Pimlico and Washington Village.

When library officials announced pending closures last month, they said five of Baltimore's 26 branches would be shut by the end of the year and as many as five more by 2006. Yesterday, officials stepped up the timetable and said the first five would be closed this summer.

Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt's director, is expected to decide on those five by June 13; the library board will have to approve her choices.

Hayden told the gathering of 100 that closings cause her "deep displeasure" and that she admires "the passion Baltimore feels for libraries."

She blamed the closings on budget shortfalls since 1998.

Rather than renovating branches she considers obsolete for the 21st century, she said, she has pursued a strategy of building four large regional libraries with state-of-the-art digital equipment in different quadrants of the city, with the first slated for Highlandtown in the southeast. However, Hayden said, the regional libraries were not intended to replace branches.

`A sense of place'

Her words were cold comfort to the crowd, which came to rally behind what some called their neighborhood's saving grace. "A library gives you a sense of place," said Jane Shipley, a Charles Village library activist.

A transplanted New Yorker, Howard Warren Forman, denounced closings as "unacceptable."

The president of a library advocates group, Liz Pollack, urged residents to contact Mayor Martin O'Malley.

About a dozen members of the group ACORN -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- vowed to organize against the closings. And East Baltimore resident Ruth Redmond, City Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil of the 3rd District and Norma C. Washington of ACORN all said the closings were unfair.

"The people who bear the brunt are those who can least afford it," Stancil said.

Criteria used to decide which 11 should be considered for closure included size, circulation, census data, reuse potential, renovation costs and "equity" -- ensuring that all parts of the city will be equally affected, Pratt officials said.

Renovations too costly

The cost of renovating the structures to bring them into compliance with the building code and handicapped-access laws cuts against the hope of some that the century-old vintage libraries might be spared.

Pointing to financial concerns, the city closed branches in Morrell Park and Charles Village in 1998. The latter closing caused an uproar -- the community took the case to court and lost.

O'Malley has approved the Pratt plan, mayoral spokesman Tony White said, but suggested a series of public meetings, starting with yesterday's. The next one is scheduled for 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Brooklyn branch.

Other cities

Baltimore's closings may be more the exception than the trend. A survey of other cities shows that Cleveland and Boston, both with smaller populations than Baltimore's, have more library branches.

Chicago plans to build 15 new branches by 2005, two of them scheduled to open this year. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was host at an Urban Libraries Council conference last year that discussed how neighborhood libraries can spur local economic development.

Daley was distressed to hear of Baltimore's planned branch closings, a Chicago library official said yesterday.

"I don't want to be an armchair quarterback, but I mentioned it to the mayor and he was saddened, especially when we're in a wonderful position of opening all these libraries," said Mary A. Dempsey, commissioner of Chicago Public Libraries.

Besides improving literacy, libraries are seen by some as engines of growth.

"New libraries can lead to new housing, new retail, new parks. We've seen it time and again," Dempsey said. Chicago's operating budget for libraries is $82 million, compared with the Pratt's $26.7 million.

Gordon Krabbe, director of the Pratt's administrative services, said, "We're spread as thin as we can be," noting that 100 staff members run the 26 branches.

LIBRARY BRANCHES AND POPULATION

City...Population...Library Branches

Chicago...2,900,000...77

Philadelphia...1,500,000...50

San Francisco...776,733...26

Baltimore...651,154...21*

Boaston...589,141...25

Cleveland...478,403...27

Pittsburgh...334,563...19

* After projected closings

SOURCE: Census 2000, public libraries

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