No Pratt Closings!

by Jane Shipley
       The Enoch Pratt Free Library is poised to change forever the nature and delivery of library service in Baltimore City, and this change is rooted in subterfuge and error.

       When the City asked voters to approve 11 bond issues in the November 7, 2000 election, it said the $7,500,000 for the Library would include money to build a “Regional library in southeast Baltimore, which will provide expanded hours, services and collections to supplement [emphasis added] those of the smaller neighborhood libraries.

       What they weren’t telling us was the true cost of the regional library. The bond issue would only build it; Pratt officials had planned since 1995 to sacrifice at least five small neighborhood branches for the money to operate it. If Pratt and the City had been honest, voters would have chosen between investing in our existing neighborhood libraries or building a 40,000 square foot mega-library in Highlandtown. We never had that choice.

       This deception is especially unsettling since our library-loving voters approved the Pratt bond issue by a higher margin than any other ballot question. It is no surprise, however, that Pratt officials have not been honest with the public. Pratt’s board selects its own successors and considers itself private.

       While state law created nine Pratt trustees who live in the subdivision the library serves and have five-year terms, as of October 2000, Pratt’s board had 39 members, including some (the Treasurer and President-Elect among them) who don’t even live in the city and 36 who believe they hold life appointments. Why would such an administration consult the citizens before they spend our money?

       Despite its financial woes, Pratt hasn’t made it a top priority to gain the funding needed to operate the neighborhood branches, including the smaller ones (under 6000 square feet) they deem unworthy of a library system. Without adequate funding to operate the regional library and the branch system, the library officials can conveniently blame the proposed closures on our financially beleaguered Mayor. This also ignores the fact that Pratt has a $26 to $30 million “endowment” fund that library officials will spend only on “enhancements.” Pratt’s board, thus, has pursued a strategy to close branches and build regional libraries as a policy choice uninformed by public comment under the smokescreen of fiscal distress.

       We have lost neighborhood libraries before. In fact, the city is littered with abandoned libraries (seven were closed and replaced, and an additional 17 were closed permanently) that outstrip the newer models in structural integrity, location, and architectural style. Many neighborhoods have fought fiercely before losing their branches, knowing the value of their presence and the destructive force of their loss. The Oldtown branch was the first to go in 1938 despite vehement citizen protest. Pratt had to win in court to close the Mt. Washington branch in a bitter battle that stalled the closure from 1948 until 1951 and may have halted additional losses for a few years.

       June 1957 saw the demise of the branch in Locust Point, 1960 the closures of Mount Clare in Pigtown and the branch on Central Avenue, and 1961 the axing of Irvington and Westport. Impoverished Pigtown didn’t see another library until 1977, and that branch is now on the under-6000 square feet endangered list.

       A 1940s move to relocate the St. Paul Street branch to North Avenue and Calvert Street was squelched, but this branch and Morrell Park were lost after a court battle in 1997.

       Learning from the Charles Village experience, residents of Roland Park, who had fought off Pratt’s plans to replace the branch with a newer model in 1965, are currently negotiating to expand the existing library.

       These negotiations, of course, feed into Pratt’s “divide and conquer” strategy. Who in Highlandtown will call for a reasonably-sized new branch that will not hurt the rest of the city? Who in Roland Park will fight the closures in other neighborhoods and perhaps jeopardize their own fragile plans?

       In fact, Pratt officials expect citizens to arrive at their April hearing pleading the cause of one neighborhood library over another. They hope we don’t realize that the only way to save one is to save them all.

       An alternative to Pratt’s vision of drive-to regional libraries supplemented with outlets such as kiosks in shopping malls is the notion that our neighborhoods are still the heart of life in Baltimore, that Central is regional enough for the entire city, that a walk-to library serves our children in innumerable ways, that our city would be stronger and our citizens better served with 30 small branches strategically placed to maximize accessibility, that our citizens know exactly what kind of library service they need, and, because they are footing the bill, that they deserve to be asked and listened to.

       In order to achieve this vision, Pratt’s board and administration must become truly accountable to the public. This will happen only if we apply enough pressure to the elected officials who hold Pratt’s purse strings—the Mayor and City Council.

       As in any worthy cause, if we do nothing, we will lose; if we work together, we will prevail as we did when we saved eight branches in 1991-92.

       Save libraries, save lives.

       Jane Shipley is a Charles Village resident.


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This story was published on April 4, 2001.