Pratt director writes her way into field's national leadership

President-elect: Carla D. Hayden is poised to take control of the American Library Association despite a rocky relationship with some Pratt patrons.

May 11, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, has just vaulted into national prominence as the president-elect of the 63,000-member American Library Association. But in Baltimore, she has found a rockier road to acceptance.

Election to the influential post means that Hayden will be regularly testifying before the nation's lawmakers, shaping policy on library matters such as Internet access and copyright law.

Yet her nine years here have produced a rare thing: polarized library politics. There is little neutral ground between those who think Hayden is a brilliant visionary and those who say she is dismantling the city's system of neighborhood libraries.

For Hayden, who has closed seven of the city's 28 library branches because of budget cuts and because of her hopes to infuse more services and Internet technology into the remaining branches, it is a question of moving ahead. Polished and Internet-savvy, she is the first Pratt director to have her own Web site, www.carlahayden.org, created while running for the ALA presidency.

"You have to step up to the plate to advance what you believe in," she says, adding later, "I started out with the Chicago system, but what Baltimore offered was a chance to move into the 20th and 21st centuries,"

An avid proponent of the information age who recently wore a Star Wars costume for an office skit, Hayden closed five library branches - Dundalk, Fells Point, Gardenville, Hollins-Payson and Pimlico - last summer.

"Libraries always change with the times. They've had to change and adapt, as they did in the early 1900s when large numbers of immigrants came to this country," Hayden said. "I believe in libraries, how relevant they are - and now I'd like to help with that transition [into an information age]."

But community activists responded to the closings by filing a lawsuit arguing that the library's board of trustees lacked legal authority to approve the closings because some of its members did not live in the city. The idea of more centralized, high-tech libraries has gotten a lukewarm reception.

"It's the wrong vision for this location," said Catharine Evans, president of Friends of the Govans Library. "Centralized library facilities are harder to use, more alienating and exactly the wrong model for the population you want to reach out to."

Middle ground is hard to find in gathering opinions about Hayden. "Dr. Hayden," as she prefers to be called, is seen by some as remote. Throughout Baltimore, where she will keep her $105,200 job as director of the Pratt while she heads the ALA, reviews of her performance are deeply divided.

Some rave about her in no uncertain terms: "She is the Michael Jordan of library systems," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Others dismiss her in no uncertain terms: "The Pratt leadership is appallingly deficient and an affront to democracy," said David L. Yaffe of a city group called Save Libraries/Save Lives. The group believes that Hayden doesn't grasp Baltimore's character as a city of neighborhoods and that her efforts add up to seven shuttered libraries and "darkened" communities.

What is certain amid the divergent opinions, however, is that Hayden is becoming an even more prominent voice in the field, not only in Baltimore but also across the nation. As president of the ALA, the nation's oldest and largest library organization that has significant political and educational influence, she becomes the ambassador for librarians and information professionals alike.

But she repeatedly has had to defend the Pratt closings, even to those who accept her.

"She's doing a wonderful job with the exception of closing those branches," 2nd District Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said. Many of his constituents, he said, do not have cars and need to walk to the library. "Mr. [Enoch] Pratt meant just that, community branches. They really are the anchor for some communities, with nothing else there. Our situation is urban. Hers is a strategy the county would love, but it's not the character of the city."

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke supported the concept and the two 1997 closures in Charles Village and Morrell Park, but added, "I was hoping we wouldn't have any more closures until we had opened one of the regional libraries online. ... Had that occurred, people would accept closings more readily."

Schmoke, who recounted persuading Hayden to leave Chicago under the nose of Mayor Richard M. Daley, contributed to Hayden's ALA campaign.

As part of a strategic plan, Hayden continues to press for Baltimore's first regional library - a larger facility with enhanced computer resources - and is hoping to break ground on it in Highlandtown next year or in 2004.

"They're a full-service operation for anything you want to do with it," Hayden says of modern-day libraries. "That's the wonder of it, and it's beyond walls now."

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