Practicality is the thrust behind library closings

April 17, 2001|By Cecil E. Flamer

IT'S ALL ABOUT money.

Public discussion about closing branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library may begin with population. The conversation may stray to quality of life, the education of our children, the vitality of neighborhoods, or even to public safety. But it all comes back to money.

What's new in all this is the willingness of leaders and citizens in Baltimore City to make the kinds of changes that reality demands.

Fact: The population of Baltimore City has dropped from 905,000 in 1970 to 650,000 in 2000. Taxpayers and library users moved away, and so did taxpaying businesses.

Meanwhile, health care, pension and salary costs for workers -- including library employees -- continue to rise, as do those for books and materials. Every organization, government and private, must invest in technology. It costs more, not less, to maintain aging buildings.

The squeeze has been on for the Pratt for many years, most acutely for the last five. Since 1997, more than $5.1 million has been cut from the library's budget requests.

This has meant reductions in bookmobile service, new books and materials, new and replacement equipment, bookbinding and cataloging activities. It has meant hiring freezes, deferred maintenance and closing branches. The downward funding trend may continue for several years.

As stewards of the extraordinary vision and legacy of Enoch Pratt, our job is to run a smarter, better Pratt Library. It is important we all understand what will and what won't change. At public meetings this month, we identified 11 of the smallest, least-used branch libraries that are being considered for closure. Five will close this summer. That means the Pratt system will have 21 branches and the central library.

The first regional branch library will be built in Highlandtown, in the southeast side of the city, the first library construction in more than 30 years.

The construction money comes from bonds, not from operating funds, where other cuts are being made. The new facility will provide state-of-the-art library services, an exhaustive collection, computers, meeting rooms and more.

It will be accessible to people with disabilities; it will be bright, open and alive with users. It will be a resource of which this city can be proud. A new, larger regional branch will not replace the Pratt's neighborhood branch system, but will complement the branch-central library system.

A better, smarter Pratt Library would include increased public service hours at all locations, improved collections, more staff, expanded programs and services as a result of improved staffing, personalized reference services, computer labs in most locations and improved safety and appearance. These are the goals.

So it is about money.

Two years ago the Pratt Library began a comprehensive fund-raising effort, reaching out to the philanthropic and business communities. Private grants and gifts and funding from corporations and foundations have risen dramatically.

Some have suggested that the Pratt's endowment be spent on branch operating costs. Such an idea is perfect for a city that sees no future, for that money would last but a few short years.

If we spent the endowment for operations, special programs such as Family Place -- which is for families and highlights storytelling and parenting skills -- no longer would be possible.

What we all must recognize is that the dollars just aren't there to operate the same library system that served this city when it was much larger.

Our challenge is to run the best possible library given the budget realities of 2002. There is a standard -- a level of quality -- below which we simply cannot go.

Cecil E. Flamer is the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

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