O'Malley, businesses must help Pratt library

May 03, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT WILL it take to rescue the 115-year-old Enoch Pratt Free Library? Above all, committed leadership.

With the mayor giving a silent push, the Pratt is about to close five of its 26 branches. Five more could be eliminated later.

That kind of retreat doesn't instill confidence in the Pratt's future. But library officials do have a plan, and it's not without merit.

The idea is to replace aging, underused branches with four large, well-stocked regional libraries offering computers, VCRs, community rooms, lots of up-to-date books and a full staff of librarians.

But at its present snail's pace, the Pratt won't open the first regional library for two years. It could be another six years after that -- or longer -- before the other three regional libraries open.

By then, there might not be much left of the Pratt to preserve.

The Pratt is a sad victim of official abandonment. Three mayors, over three decades, have seen the city's library system -- once a gleaming, nationwide model -- as an appendage that need not be nurtured.

William Donald Schaefer started the stinginess with the Pratt; Kurt L. Schmoke's "The City That Reads" slogan didn't extend to the libraries; and Martin O'Malley doesn't have much interest.

The Pratt could die from all this neglect.

These are hard times for the city's library system. Its staff of 342, cut by one-third over the past decade, is stressed. There aren't enough funds to keep books current. There's no money for preventive maintenance on its aging buildings. Nor has the city put up money to renovate the branches.

Politicians have turned their backs.

Take, for instance, Baltimore's delegation to the General Assembly. City lawmakers sponsored and approved a total of 39 miscellaneous capital projects, worth $51 million, during the recent legislative session.

Not a penny was allocated for fixing the Pratt's branches or for building the regional libraries. It just wasn't a priority.

Nor do you see members of the Baltimore City Council taking up the Pratt's cause. They moan about the coming branch closings, but what are they doing to find funds for the Pratt?

The same should be asked of the mayor. Where's his grand financing plan to make the Pratt a beacon of hope for kids in tattered neighborhoods?

Where's the impetus to find the necessary funds to build regional libraries, renovate the remaining branches and turn them into busy centers of community life?

It should be the mayor, not the library board, organizing a campaign to knock on foundation doors for capital grants essential to resurrecting those branches and opening modern, regional libraries ASAP.

Baltimore's struggling citizens can't afford to wait a decade for a fully reborn Pratt to emerge. The tragic decline of the library's branch system has become a symbol of what's going wrong in this aging city.

The mayor needs to come up with a strategy for obtaining state capital bond money for the library's renewal, a strategy that the city's legislative delegation can embrace and ardently support.

The mayor needs to put the squeeze on the region's wealthy business leaders and the Greater Baltimore Committee to ante up -- not only bucks for books and buildings, but sweat equity, too.

Where's the corporate "Adopt a Library Branch" program? Where's the effort to involve corporate workers in a long-term Pratt library literacy program?

And where's the effort to turn these neighborhood branches and regional libraries (if they ever get built) into multipurpose centers?

These ought to include not only the traditional library fare, but City Hall outreach offices, a well-used community meeting room, weekly movies, adult education programs, and maybe a coffee bar and some commercial shops in the same block -- even if the city has to subsidize these enterprises to make them viable.

The Pratt is slowly bleeding to death. It need not continue.

The library staff has plenty of innovative ideas for getting books and information to folks in different ways -- at senior centers, day-care centers, school libraries as "Pratt portals," computer kiosks in shopping areas, cooperative ventures with the counties.

It makes sense to stabilize a somewhat smaller library system while still reaching out in all neighborhoods, but in different ways.

One encouraging sign is active private fund-raising by the Pratt after decades of moribund efforts.

But without leadership from the very top -- both public and private -- the Pratt won't make it. Who's going to step forward and take up the banner of lending libraries as the city's lifeblood?

Four years ago, the Baltimore Community Foundation had a commission study the Pratt's situation. It concluded that "despite creative leadership and the best efforts of staff, the Pratt barely has the resources it needs to be an adequate library."

It is time for the mayor, among others, to recognize that a valuable resource is being wasted. Let's hope he and the business community react before it's too late.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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