Between the lines

As the city prepares to close library branches, put yourself in a child's shoes. Only then can you fully appreciate what will be lost.

May 10, 2001|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The city plans to close five libraries, and the grown-ups say that's a shame.

There's not enough money. That's what the big kids say.

But younger kids wonder:

Did somebody not turn in their overdue books?

They don't understand how much it costs to repair old buildings or install handicap ramps or things like that. They don't understand the Enoch Pratt Free Library has already cut back its hours and stopped buying as many new books.

What they understand are all the things a library can be.

Or used to be.

To a child, a library is ...

Adventure.

"It's like you're in a whole 'nother place where there's books and books and a whole bunch of books, and if you wanted to, you could get rich off a book."

That's from 10-year-old Tyshmia Bond, who lives just around the corner from the Pimlico branch, one of the libraries that might close.

"I was at the library and this lady she asks me, `What are you looking for?' and I said I was looking for an adventure book, and she gave me this book: `Kate Heads West.' "

Kate took Tyshmia west of Baltimore, west of the inner city, west of a shrinking population, a dwindling tax base, a move to close the smallest and least-used library branches and build regional branches instead.

Normally, Tyshmia ventures no farther than Arlington Elementary School, which is where two girls in her fourth-grade class dared to say the library is boring.

To which, Tyshmia had plenty to say: "It ain't boring. It's fun. I go to the library to have fun."

Of course, Tyshmia spoke with the wisdom that comes from adventure and travel, from seeing the world, or from reading about it, anyway.

A library is ...

Opportunity.

Across the city, two boys and a girl are walking down Belair Road on their way to Gardenville, another branch that could close.

Seven-year-old Nick Wallace is first. His 12-year-old sister Jessica is next. Then comes Ben.

Ben, who is now 11, was once like Goldilocks in the story about the three bears. He hadn't yet found the book that turned him on to reading, the one that fit him just right.

He went with his siblings to the library at least once a week. To get help with schoolwork. To rent videos. To play on the computer. To see programs. To get books to read for pleasure.

But none of the books quite fit.

Not the picture books.

Too babyish.

Not the young adult fiction.

Too mature.

Not until he happened upon the "Cam Jansen" series of mysteries did Ben find a perfect fit.

He finished one book, then another, and now he reads about bugs and bees. Now he likes the "Something Queer " mystery series so much that he doesn't mind that the two detectives are girls.

That's right.

He likes reading that much.

A library is ...

Community.

Back across the city, where North Avenue intersects Pennsylvania, in a library branch safe from closing, sit four girls in two pairs.

For six weeks in spring.

For six weeks in fall.

The four got together, but that's not all.

Other kids joined the Family Matters program. Parents, too.

Between them one book.

One book together, until they were through.

Then on to another.

To another they went.

Faatimah Parker and her sister Jasmine, Ar'Lena Smith and Michelle Jones.

Oh, the fun times they had.

Oh, the places they went.

It reminded one mother of all her time spent.

When she was their age, when she was a girl, how she longed to be older, how she longed to be more.

To be 12.

To be 13, for sure.

To climb the stairs.

To see the second floor.

How she waited.

How she pined.

How she counted every day.

Until at last the librarian said it:

Now, you may!

Up the stairs. Up, up she was sent.

To adult fiction.

So that was where those stairs went!

Those days were fun, and the group has brought more.

A favorite book was "Chato's Kitchen," about a cat who invites the neighbor mice to dinner.

He plans to eat them, but that's not how the story ends.

The book is about community.

In the end, they're all friends.

A library is ...

Home.

Her name is Aissata Sall, and she came from Mauritania, a country far away in West Africa.

She moved with her mother and father, two brothers and two sisters, because of persecution.

Her name is Aissata, and since she was the oldest child, she went to work cleaning hotel rooms in the Inner Harbor.

Though she was 21 and spoke French and the Wolof language well, her English was that of a child.

Her name is Aissata, and she had few friends until she went to the Patterson Park library branch.

She found a place where tutors from Johns Hopkins University work with the International Rescue Committee to help refugee children adjust.

She found a place where immigrant families like hers have brought new life to an old neighborhood and an old library.

She found a home away from home, where people respect her, encourage her and call her by name.

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