Pratt turns a new page for patrons

Highlandtown regional branch boasts latest in print and electronic facilities

May 15, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun Reporter

With the boundless energy of a 9-year-old, Daniel Brown, who is home-schooled, yanked on the doors of the Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown - determined to be the first patron inside the gleaming building at its opening yesterday morning.

On his checklist: Check out the first book at the self-checkout counter. Get on the Internet.

"He woke up like it was Christmas," said Daniel's mother, Mary Brown of Canton. He said, `Come on, Mom!' I'm excited, too. I home-school my boys, so I'm excited. All the books and resources they have - it's great. You can really come here and teach your children for nothing."

Baltimore library officials are hoping to capitalize on that enthusiasm.

Yesterday's opening of the 27,000-square-foot, $16.2 million library was a boon to a struggling neighborhood. And, as the first brand-new public library building to open in the city in 35 years, it was symbolic of a turnaround for the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library system.

Six years ago the system closed five libraries in some of its poorest neighborhoods. A decade ago, two others were shut down.

The new library, in the 3600 block of Eastern Ave., will house an 80,000-volume collection, offer Internet access on nearly 60 black Gateway computers with flat-screen monitors, and sell coffee and pastries at its first-floor cafe. The rebound of the city's libraries is due in part to a nearly 50 percent budget increase since 2001, as city revenues spiked and produced surpluses. Last year's overall city budget included a $2.6 million increase for the library system. A year earlier, the city gave the Pratt $1.5 million for new books and building improvements.

This generosity, in turn, sparked a boost in private donations to the library system.

The Pratt's good fortune occurred at a time when libraries around the country began revamping their image to resemble "super bookstores" opened by national chains.

So the new library will have a cafe, aimed at attracting readers who would normally lounge for hours sipping frappuccinos and perusing the latest releases at the retail bookstores. It will open in the next few months, after the city selects a company concessionaire to run its operation. There's also an outside reading garden, private study rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Library officials hope the branch attracts patrons not only from Highlandtown, but from the more affluent neighborhoods of Canton and Fells Point.

"We want this to be a community hub, a place that, when they come in here, we hope they'll leave better," said Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt's executive director. "If you look, you'll see we have a lot of amenities to make people feel comfortable so they don't want to leave."

This formula has worked elsewhere in the country. The main branch of the New York City library has become a hot spot for 20- and 30-something singles who attend lectures there with dates. And high-schoolers held their prom at the Maricopa County Library in Arizona.

"We're hoping to make libraries a social destination," said Macey Morales, a spokeswoman for the American Library Association, based in Chicago. "It's a hip place to be."

The new Baltimore library doesn't have a fireplace - an attraction of the public library in Princeton, N.J. - but it does have the largest DVD and audio book collection outside of downtown's central library on Cathedral Street. It also boasts a collection of manga - Japanese comic books that are popular among the teenage set.

And in a nod to the neighborhood's diversity, the children's section features titles such as An African Princess by Lyra Edmonds and A Gift of Gracias by Julia Alvarez.

There's also a busy activities calendar to draw visitors.

Among its offerings in the next few months is a lecture - "Thinking Hip-Hop" - by Latino performance artist Cristopolis on May 23, and an event that is sure to draw crowds on June 15 when a triple-decker Harry Potter-themed bus makes a stop to promote the release of the last of the books in the wildly popular series.

For patrons who don't want to linger, the new Baltimore library has a drive-through window.

Noreen Watts, a retired federal government employee and an avid reader of murder mysteries, was one of 17 people who waited outside the library's doors before its 10 a.m. opening.

"I'm a vociferous reader," said Watts, 65, of Canton. "I have to read. I have cable, but I hate American Idol and all reality TV. I love books. Everything today is computerized and done for you. But I still like to read."

Still, a key component of what people want in a library is Web access.

"Computers, computers, computers," said Jacqueline Watts, chair of the community advisory committee for the Southeast Anchor Library. "Because a lot of people can't afford them, and Internet access is really expensive."

Virginia Wenth, 22, with her son, 17-month-old Daeshawn Hope, in a stroller, huddled in the DVD section. She selected Elmo's Potty Time for Daeshawn.

"I haven't been to the library in a long time, so I wanted to get back into reading," Wenth said. "And I want to teach him that reading - there's nothing wrong with it."

Clutching her cane, with a smile spread across her face, Elva Fugate, 77, who lives two blocks away from the library, said to no one in particular, "I'm so happy in here. I love it. I love it. It's so wonderful."

Already she had filled her tan tote bag, covered in lighthouses - a Mother's Day gift from her four great-grandchildren - with two books. She even had time to lay claim to a copy of former CIA Director George Tenet's new memoir, At the Center of the Storm, once its gets to the library next month.

And she wasn't done.

"I'm getting four or five before I leave," she said.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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