The first library is spanking new, filled with books, lined with twelve computers, staffed by three specially trained childrens librarians and an aide, offers comfortable seating for patrons, and a separate play space and an arts and crafts area for the kids.
This library, tucked away in the inner harbors flashy Port Discovery and named the Exploration Center, is open seven days a week for a total of 45 hours, more than any other branch library in the Pratt system.
When I recently visited the Exploration Center, I was impressed with its vibrant good looks and plentiful resources—indeed the library is full of things to delight children—but on this day, a Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., it was oddly devoid of children. Nary a one could be found in its welcoming spaces.
The second library currently sits on death row, a somber space occupied by 10 other inner city neighborhood branches—five of which will be closed within the year. It resides on Wolfe Street, just a few strides from North Avenue, far from the glitter of the harbor, in a neighborhood struggling to free itself from the grips of poverty and her inevitable offspring—deteriorating housing, drugs, and crime.
This is the Clifton Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, opened in 1916. The Clifton branch is a humble enterprise, its appearance somewhat tattered and ragged, a poor inner city relation to its rich young cousin to the south by the waters edge. It is allowed to open its doors only four days a week from 1 to 5 pm, a total of 16 hours a week, the fewest of any library in the system. It has suffered from neglect, surely, but it is not without life and vigor and even hope, appearances notwithstanding.
The day that I visited Clifton, again a Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., it was teeming with children attracted by the six computers available. A tutor was helping a high school student with chemistry, a young man was reading a book on pit bulls, and a pregnant woman was looking for a book on nutrition. All of this activity was capably managed by a single librarian and her aide. While the librarian successfully kept order, the constant demands on her time limited the attention she could give the children.
Pratts statistics tell us the daily circulation at Clifton is the lowest of any of the full-service libraries—an ominous statistic, one used by Pratt officials to put it on death row. At 39 books per day, however, Clifton more than triples the 12 books per day checked out of the Exploration Center.
If we calculated circulation-per-hour open, the unfairness of this indicator would be more glaring, because Clifton is only open 16 hours per week compared to the 45 hours per week children can go to the Exploration Center.
This of course also says nothing about the investment in equipment and other resources that have been lavished on the Exploration Center, and the very short shrift that Clifton has gotten. Wouldnt it be fair to assume that if Clifton had the resources and hours of the Exploration Center its performance would dramatically rise?
A look at other service statistics shows that Clifton issued library cards to 211 adults and 397 children last year, while the Exploration Center issued an annual total of 518 to adults and 339 to children. That poor, neglected, and doomed inner city cousin does remarkably well for how little it is given to deliver its mission.
It may seem odd that Clifton issues more cards to children than adults, and the Exploration Center, specially designed for children, signed up more than twice as many adults (calculated in raw numbers, not per hour open). One possible explanation that also highlights a very telling difference in the facilities is that, unlike Clifton, unattended children do not venture into the Exploration Center. Signing up for a library card gives adults something to do while they wait for their children.
Thus, the strange truth is that the very Pratt officials who accuse neighborhood library supporters of being nostalgic for the libraries of the past have chosen to locate a fancy childrens library in a museum—a place that ignores the modern urban realities of latch-key kids with after-school hours on their hands to spend creatively or destructively.
The Exploration Center is invisible from the street, its book collection was chosen to meet the needs of a childrens museum rather than of a local school or neighborhood branch library, and children cant get there on their own. In fact, since half of the visitors to Port Discovery are from out-of-state, it is fair to say that the Exploration Center is simply a tourist attraction.
The Center opened along with Port Discovery in December 1998, 15 months after Pratt replaced the libraries near elementary schools in Charles Village and Morrell Park with one 45-minute bookmobile visit every other week (when the bookmobile is running).
Pratt officials solicited private donations to cover the cost of the Centers construction, books, computers, and furnishings. (This is, by the way, a funding scheme not unlike the one the Enoch Pratt—and later Andrew Carnegie—used to build the Pratt system in the first place.)
Until June 2000, Port Discovery absorbed Pratts rent and utility fees, but this is a small concession from a non-profit that was subsidized with an initial $16 million infusion of state and city funding. Because Port Discovery attracted fewer visitors than expected and had to cut its staff in its second year, it is unlikely that Pratt remains a free lodger. The true cost of the Center to Pratt, however, is buried in the Librarys accounting system.
The fact that the Exploration Center was created with private funds should not protect it from our scrutiny or criticism, and such scrutiny should be directed at the system as a whole.
We should look at Clifton and The Exploration Center in the same gaze; at Hollins-Payson and Roland Park, side by side. We should also remember that the majority of our older neighborhood libraries were also the gifts of private donors.
Yet current Pratt officials seem eager to turn their backs on these gifts, to abandon them to alternative use. Is it because they are now in the wrong neighborhoods?
If Pratt can entice donors to outfit a library in a tourist attraction at the Inner Harbor, why does it refuse to seek out donors to invest in our neighborhood branches, libraries in communities that would seem to need their faith and their attention the most? If Pratt can afford to worry about meeting the needs of the children of tourists to the inner harbor, shouldnt such concern come only after the needs of the children of our inner city are met?
The Enoch Pratt Free Library has always seemed to me to be one of the great unifying institutions of our city. Neighborhood branches opened their doors to all—black, white, rich, poor, the educated and those just beginning to seek out the fruits of knowledge.
Shouldnt that unifying mission still be a part of the Librarys charge, to build a bridge across the chasm between the inner harbor and the inner city and to help make this city whole again?
I urge all those reading this: Dont let Pratt close Clifton or any other of its poor cousins, abandoning our neediest neighborhoods only to continue to pamper tourist attractions and to build suburban-style mega-libraries unreachable by our inner city kids.
SAVE LIBRARIES—SAVE OURSELVES: www.savelibraries.org
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This story was published on May 30, 2001.