Pratt chief takes issue to national stage

Hayden says she'll push for equal library access as head of national group

April 08, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

This is National Library Week, and Baltimore's chief librarian is celebrating with a trip to Chicago for a meeting of the American Library Association, a group she will soon lead as president.

The new job will give Carla D. Hayden, director of the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library, a chance to bring her vision of libraries to a national stage.

Hayden, who earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago, was elected president of the ALA last year and in June will be inaugurated for a one-year term - the first time since 1965 that a Baltimore librarian has held the national leadership post.

Asked about her presidential agenda, Hayden said she would be an advocate for greater equity of access to library resources in a time when most municipal and state libraries are feeling pressure from the nation's economic downturn.

Socioeconomic status should not be a factor - an advantage or disadvantage-when it comes to using public libraries, she said.

"Equity of access speaks directly to me," Hayden said in an interview.

A passionate advocate of narrowing the "digital divide" among households that are computer-literate and those that are not, Hayden has advised members of Congress on the issue of equipping libraries with Internet access.

One of Hayden's duties as ALA president, she said, will be to remind lawmakers that library use is robust in hard times and that federal, state and city fiscal support should not ebb.

The relevance of libraries in a world that demands speedy information is a question Hayden is eager to address.

"We're expanding our reach where now you don't have to go to the library," she said. "The library can come to you."

"People are looking to libraries for answers and solutions," she said. "They need information on where Iraq is in the world. They need tax advice, job information, economic investing."

Hayden is focused on making libraries matter in a practical way. The "Free" in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system, one of the oldest in the country, is something she takes pride in. It originally meant that library cards were available to all, regardless of race - no small thing for a city that practiced school segregation.

Hayden said her mission is to preserve access to a city library's riches in the information age. In the last 10 years, she said, as the Internet and e-mail have entered American lives, the Pratt has begun serving patrons who have never checked out a book - the traditional measure of library use.

As the caretaker of the statewide information network Sailor, the Pratt is cutting a path to "24/7" library use, with over 300 million "hits" last year, she said. Pratt research librarians now handle queries over the telephone for people in a matter of minutes, saving the time it used to take people to make a trip downtown.

Equity of access cuts both ways, as Hayden showed in 2001 when she was forced by city budget cuts to close five library branches. She said she made a point of spreading the losses among poor and middle-class neighborhoods.

She opposed a deal the city made with the Roland Park neighborhood to keep its branch open by sharing the cost of renovation.

Hayden told a state Senate hearing this year that she could not support a deal with one community that other neighborhoods could not make.

"Equality of access equals equality," she said. "It's one of the cornerstones of democracy, ... that anyone can check out a book or use the library. It's a freedom that can't be diminished."

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