COMMENTARY:

Pratt Library: You, the Users, Decide Our Future
by Carla Hayden
Director, Enoch Pratt Free Library
ladies who run the library
The Exploration Center’s librarian, Margaret Friesl (l.), and library volunteer Lenora Williams.
       In the end, it is you, the users or patrons of the Enoch Pratt Free Library who decide the future of our 110-year-old institution. You choose the Pratt—by coming to our Central Library, one of our many neighborhood branches, or by participating in one of countless programs that promote reading, history, art, science, and so much more. You choose the on-line Pratt Library, accessed through the Internet from your home, school, PAL Center, or work. Perhaps you enter a bookmobile or meet your Pratt librarian at a Baltimore City public school.

       It’s also very possible, however, in your search for current books and on-line information, you choose something other than your neighborhood Pratt Library branch. Over 100 million times each year, a user clicks on a Website operated by the Enoch Pratt Free Library and its staff. Over 40,000 Baltimore City residents hold a card at the Baltimore County Library. Perhaps you’ve been to your neighborhood branch and found something missing, something that wasn’t quite up to your expectations: a thin supply of new books, a long wait for a computer, difficult access if you have a disability.

       We all should be clear on the fundamental challenges faced by the Pratt Library today. Baltimore City does not have the tax revenue to support a library system that served the city when its population exceeded 900,000. Are you prepared to join us in looking to the future, or will you join those who remain focused on the past?

       The library, like any school or store or service, must meet the current needs of its patrons or they will choose an alternative. Library patrons are interested in what the library can do for them now—not what it did for them, or their parents or grandparents many years ago.

       Perhaps more compelling, the library, like any other taxpayer-supported institution, must adjust to the reality of a budget that has been pared by millions of dollars over the last five years.

       Throughout the public discussion about the upcoming closure of five neighborhood branch libraries, the mayor, our City Council members, our state legislators, many business leaders, and countless thousands of citizens have listened, shared their concerns and ideas, and understand the need to change. Nonetheless, there are some who have clouded the discussion with shrill assertions that are simply false. Those falsehoods should not go unanswered. Let me address just a few.
The Pratt Library has a proud legacy, but it is not, nor should it ever be, a museum to the City’s past.

       • The library was not required by the mayor or any law to hold public meetings on the branch closure matter. It was simply the right thing to do, and in keeping with a long-standing commitment to obtain public input on important decisions about the future of the library.

       • Decisions about which branches to close were not made prior to the public meetings. Citizen input obtained in these meetings is helping us make these difficult decisions.

       • Budget reductions are at the heart of our decisions to restructure our library.

       • The Pratt role in support of libraries throughout the state has made state taxpayers partners in funding the institution. State funding has been increasing in real dollars and as a percent of Pratt funding for several years. The Pratt’s leadership must reflect this statewide responsibility.

       • Some would have you believe that reductions in the City’s population—from well over 900,000 to 640,000—should have no bearing on the way the library system is structured. Rather than point to population declines, the emergence of the Internet, and diminishing library budgets, they blame declining circulation on the library administration.

       • The concept of regional libraries—characterized by some as “suburban”—originated in cities, for cities. It is a concept dedicated to bringing more services closer to neighborhoods rather than taking them from neighborhoods.

       But more troubling for you and for me is that the interests of others in our City are threatened by a small number of vocal citizens who would freeze our library in the past. This rancor, unfortunately, does not alter the reality of a smaller City and tighter budgets. It takes precious dollars to maintain even the smallest, most poorly stocked, and least-used branches. Those dollars can’t be used to buy new books, computers, additional librarian hours, or innovative programming.

       Do not let others make choices for you. I urge you to think about—and speak out for if you wish—our need to provide our children with library services and books that will prepare them for tomorrow, not lock them in the past.

       The Pratt Library has a proud legacy, but it is not, nor should it ever be, a museum to the City’s past. We are committed to concentrating our scarce resources and pressing forward, to break the pattern of decline to create a stronger library system. We must change in order to do so. With fewer dollars, it is necessary to close some of our 26 branches if we are to achieve our goals:

       • Increase public service hours. It is our goal to increase service at most locations to six days a week and if possible, three to four nights per week.

       • Improve collections. Our goal is to improve collections by setting aside a minimum of 15 percent of our resources for this purpose. Today we spend only 10 to 12 percent.

       • Expand programs and services. Our goal is to offer more programs and services that our users demand.

       • Increase personalized reference service. We want to increase the amount of time our patrons have one-on-one with a librarian.

       • Computer labs in most locations. Computers and training labs—without long lines and waiting lists — are clearly our goal.

       • Improve the safety, maintenance and appearance of all our operating facilities. Every library facility must be a source of pride, but we must change our system in order to meet this minimum standard.

       The Pratt Library of the future can be much more than it is today. It can be made up of a network of neighborhood branches with a few larger, full-service regional branches closer to neighborhoods than the Central Library. The Enoch Pratt Free Library can return to a place of pride and leadership in our City, if we come together and look ahead.

       I invite you—I urge you—to join us as we move forward together.


Carla Hayden is director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (www.epfl.net)

 


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This story was published on May 30, 2001.