When Enoch Pratt Free Library officials announced this year that they would close five branches, the system suffered a public relations backlash, taking blustery criticism across the city from indignant community activists and city officials.
But the fallout from the announced closings - which the library blamed on city cutbacks - appears to have been a boon for the Pratt's new fund-raising drive.
Public donations increased from $1.2 million in fiscal year 2000 to $2 million in fiscal year 2001.
The Pratt sent a direct mailing asking for contributions before and after the announcement of impending closures in March. Before, the library received $28,000 in donations from 650 people who sent in less than $1,000. After, it received $33,000 from 1,000 donors.
That is an increase of about 54 percent in new "small" donors in six months - a time when the Pratt's management and financial woes were one of Baltimore's hottest political and social topics.
Experts say it may be linked to the disclosure by Library Director Carla D. Hayden, who said she had no choice but to close the five branches - 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.
"Direct mail can be influenced by how timely and salient the particular topic is," said Peter Berns, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, which has 11,050 members. "With the news about closing of libraries, you wouldn't be surprised if it engenders interest from people who believe strongly in the importance of public libraries.
"When you have a crisis like a hurricane or flood, there is often an outpouring of charitable giving. A catastrophic event draws attention from people who otherwise weren't thinking about it."
The library system, likely to be a hotly debated topic even after the five branches close next month, has an annual operating budget of $27 million.
The Pratt also undertook other fund-raising initiatives last year, resulting in 2,800 new donors to the Pratt during fiscal year 2001, which ran from July 1, 2000, to June 30 of this year.
The initiative to start looking for more public funding was sparked in July 2000 by a challenge grant from the Baltimore-based France-Merrick Foundation, which agreed to match every new or increased gift up to $100,000.
The Pratt had until the end of June to raise the challenge money. It did so through fund raising by its board of directors and its first direct-mail campaign.
The money will not be used for operating costs or to keep library branches open, Hayden said, because it is not a steady, reliable stream of revenue. Instead, it will be used for programs such as summer reading for children and their caregivers, as well as computers and technology training.
The increased outreach to the community goes back to the roots of the Pratt, which built its central library in the 1930s.
Then-Director Joseph Wheeler was an aggressive marketer, Hayden said, and placed advertisements reading "COME TO THE PRATT LIBRARY" inside men's shirts when they picked them up from the dry cleaner.
"For years, the Pratt was a leader in public relations," Hayden said. "We're hoping to get back to that."
She said the library had never done mass marketing before because until recently, it "hadn't been part of the culture."
Next year, the Pratt hopes to raise $2.7 million, said Theresa Silanskis, the library's director of development and external relations.