At a meeting in Brooklyn last night, fiery city residents shook homemade signs and begged Enoch Pratt Free Library officials to keep their libraries open.
The Pratt announced this week that it will close five branches by this summer. The five will be chosen from a list of 11.
The endangered branches - which tend to be the smallest, oldest or least used - are located throughout the city. They are: Canton, Clifton, Dundalk, Fells Point, Forest Park, Gardenville, Govans, Highlandtown, Hollins-Payson, Pimlico and Washington Village in Pigtown.
Last night's meeting at the Brooklyn branch was the second of four public forums the Pratt is holding to get public input about which branches should close. About 100 people showed up - many from Pigtown, including a man dressed as a pig - and challenged library director Carla D. Hayden and other officials to go into the community to see the value of neighborhood libraries.
"You folks making decisions need to come out in the streets to see how important these libraries are," said Pigtown activist Terry Smith, who wore a fluffy pink pig costume.
Residents and officials called the prospect of losing some of the 26 branches in place of larger, regional libraries "ill conceived."
About 36 percent of the city's children live in poverty, and 83 percent of third-graders read below grade level, according to a fund-raising letter sent to residents this week by Hayden. The letter did not mention the proposed closings.
"You don't address a budgetary problem on the backs of poor neighborhoods. That's outrageous," said Democratic Sen. George W. Della Jr. of the 47th District. "In a neighborhood like Hollins-Payson, it's the last visible sign of city government. It's a nail in their coffin, like saying, `Folks, we don't care about you.'"
In Hollins-Payson in Southwest Baltimore, most elementary pupils didn't pass statewide reading proficiency tests. At Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School and Frederick Elementary School, both near the Hollins-Payson branch, 93 percent and 85 percent of third-graders, respectively, failed the state reading test last year.
One of the reasons Pigtown residents said they were so upset is because they had no warning from Pratt, which could have allowed them time to come up with a plan to save their library.
"We're quite capable to mobilize our neighborhood and come up with a solution so we don't cut off library service to Pigtown," said Chris Ryer, executive director of Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council.
In Pigtown, neither of the area's two elementary schools has a library. The only other public book collection is at Diggs-Johnson Middle School, where 99 percent of eighth-graders failed to read at a satisfactory level, according to the latest state tests.
Hayden said she didn't want to close any libraries but was dealing with a budget shortfall.
"We know no one wants less of anything," Hayden read from a statement. "We have to manage what we have so we don't have less of everything."
Then she listened to dozens of speakers, most of whom told stories about why the libraries are vital. Many were children.
"If I have a school project and need a book from the library and can't go there to get it, I might not finish my project," said Brooklyn resident Michael O'Malley, 12. "Then I might have to redo sixth grade. If you close the library you're telling me you don't want me to succeed in life."
The next public library forums will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Reisterstown Road, 6310 Reisterstown Road; and April 19 at Patterson Park, 158 N. Linwood Ave.