Branch closings hurt, library director says

Decision necessary in face of shrinking budget, Hayden says

July 20, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The day after Enoch Pratt Free Library Director Carla D. Hayden announced the five branch libraries that will close for good in September, she sat in the Poe Room of the central library downtown defending her decision to shut them down and saying she has been misunderstood.

Hayden said that since she revealed in March that branches would close because of fiscal restraints, she has taken verbal lashings from community leaders and elected officials who say she has not tried to keep them open and that she planned all along to shut old, small neighborhood branches and replace them with a few new high-tech regional libraries.

"People say, `Dr. Hayden wants to close branches,' but that was never the strategy," she said yesterday, raising her voice and waving her hands. "Cut me a break. That's ridiculous. It makes me so emotional. I am a career librarian. It hurts. People say they've cried over this. I've cried, too."

Hayden said she had no choice but to close the five libraries - Dundalk, Fells Point, Gardenville, Hollins-Payson and Pimlico - because her system has been operating with about $5.1 million less than requested from the city over a five-year period.

When she realized she had a shrinking budget last year, she came up with four ways to deal with the shortfall: buy no new books this year, open branches for only four hours a day, stop computer service in the library system or close five branches.

She chose the last option, and Mayor Martin O'Malley approved.

She picked which branches to close based on the number of visitors, the condition and size of buildings and the population of neighborhoods.

She said she knows library patrons will go to the county to check out books but that she can't control that.

Hayden said she would have preferred continuing to provide easy access to free books and computers to city residents but that the library's operating funds come from the city and she doesn't control those purse strings. The city's contribution to the library budget is about $18 million this year.

"You have to look at what you have to do to stay viable as a library. Not a day care center, a library," Hayden said. "It's frustrating that people have misinterpreted this. In an ideal world, we'd be able to have new branches in new growth areas, expand existing branches, have all our branches open seven days a week until 10 p.m. In an ideal world, we'd have all the best-sellers and nothing called a reserve list. We'd have vans deliver books to the homebound."

Her vision for a perfect library system is a pyramid, she said. At the top is the central library downtown, in the middle are modern anchor libraries with about 40,000 square feet of space, and at the base are branches.

She spoke enthusiastically of the $46 million restoration and expansion planned for the central library in 2006. It will have a cyber cafe, a new Edgar Allan Poe room containing a lock of his hair, a new space for H.L Mencken's literary estate and the largest African-American reading room in the state. The state has allocated $40 million, and the city, $6 million.

Hayden also talked passionately about the $8 million, 40,000-square-foot southeast "anchor" library planned for Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown in 2003. Funding for that comes from a city bond issue, approved by taxpayers.

She hopes to build one to three more of those in the city, depending on funding, but she emphasized that they will not be at the expense of the remaining 21 branch libraries.

Closing library branches has nothing to do with the $54 million planned for construction and rehabilitation projects, she said. The money for the new projects comes from state funds and a city bond issue and can't be used to cover operating costs for the branches, she said.

"They're two separate fund sources; they are not the same pot. They're two different trains," she said. "We have to make sure both trains can run."

The "train" of the branches has been slowing in recent years. Book budgets have been slashed, and staff hours have been reduced.

"My strategy is to build a strong system," Hayden said. "But reality dictates what you can do."

Sun staff writer Laura Lippman contributed to this article.

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