$1 million is given to Pratt library

Anonymous donor directs money toward improving branches in city system

April 01, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The Enoch Pratt Free Library, which closed a quarter of its neighborhood branches in recent years, has received a $1 million gift earmarked for improving its branch system.

The anonymous gift will be directed toward "visible improvements that brighten up the branches," Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden said. She plans to announce the gift today at the Forest Park branch library in Northwest Baltimore, a 1910 building that she said exemplifies a community library that could use some refurbishing.

The $1 million equals the sum given in 2001 by Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown to endow the library's 13,000-piece African-American collection. The two $1 million gifts are the largest given to the library since its founding in 1882.

Hayden said it would take her a month or two to decide what actions to take with the gift. She named more career workshops, computer rooms, children's and teen services, wheelchair accessibility and replacing worn furnishings as improvements she would like to make in a system whose oldest branch, in Canton, dates to 1896.

Hayden said the gift will not be used to extend branch hours because the donation will not go toward operating costs. Nor will it be distributed evenly among the branches, Hayden said. Instead, she said, she will base her decisions on need and equity.

"This gift is significant because the branches need attention," said Hayden. "Forest Park needs a carpet," for example, she said, adding: "I'd love to see puppet stages for each branch."

Hayden, who also heads the American Library Association, said the gift is a morale-booster in a time of tight public spending.

"Our second million-dollar gift shows that people have faith in the Pratt," Hayden said. "It's a mark of confidence."

During a grim period for the Pratt, seven neighborhood libraries were closed from 1997 to 2001, leaving a total of 21 branches and the main library.

The new donor's requirement for the money's use drew praise from inside and outside the Pratt library system.

Pratt board President Edward J. Brody expressed delight at the donation. "It's a very, very nice gift, and I'm more than pleasantly surprised," Brody said.

While the main library on Cathedral Street added a shining annex in recent years, the branch system has been hurt by budget cuts. When Hayden trimmed the number of branches, the closures provoked community anger, sidewalk protests and a lawsuit that is wending its way through city courts.

Contention over branch closings arose again as recently as Sunday. In the Pratt's meeting room, with Hayden present, ACORN -- the grass-roots organization that has challenged the library closures in court -- staged a leadership takeover of the library's nonprofit support group, Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Mitch Klein, ACORN's head organizer, said yesterday that the Pratt should earmark its new gift to reopen two of the closed branches in Park Heights and Hollins-Payson.

Hayden, though, said she does not intend to reopen any branches, or provide funds from the gift to every branch. Because Roland Park residents have raised about $1 million for their library's expansion, Hayden said, she would not direct any of the new gift there.

The Pratt's operating budget, now about $30 million, is likely to rise to $31 million in the next fiscal year to keep services at the same level, Hayden said. Because the central Pratt is also designated as the state library resource center, the state and city fund the Pratt about equally.

The 1933 central Pratt will undergo a state-funded $56 million capital improvement project late next year to restore its finely crafted windows, brass, stenciling and other features.

The anonymous gift's focus on branches drew praise from a member of the group that is suing the Pratt.

ACORN activist Jackie Johnson, 58, a resident of Edmondson Village and one of several new board members of the Pratt Friends, said of the contribution: "God bless whoever that is. That donor recognizes that we must reach our youngsters where they are, where they live."

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