COMMENTARY:

Pratt Branch Closings Inspire Anger, Frustration

by Jane Shipley
Why weren’t the affected communities called on for input before the decisions to close were made?
       On four evenings in April, waves of tears, anger, and frustration washed over Pratt officials as they sat stony-faced behind tables on raised platforms in the front of the meeting rooms of four libraries that are not threatened by closure.

       Each meeting opened with Pratt administrators taking turns citing statistics, issuing statements as if they were library gospel (for example, that no library should be under 6,000 square feet in size, which ignores Baltimore’s long years of excellent service by just such small libraries), and offering excuses for their decision to close at least five neighborhood libraries.

       After 40 minutes of this, citizens were granted approximately three minutes each to speak. The meetings ended with Pratt officials making more pronouncements. If citizens attempted to initiate a dialogue at that point, they were immediately ruled “out of order.”

       The citizens who spoke did not, however, adhere to the Pratt’s agenda. No one discussed reasons why one branch should be spared over another or offered suggestions to help the Pratt figure out what to do with abandoned buildings. Instead, our citizens eloquently and overwhelmingly used their few minutes to explain the importance of keeping all of the libraries open.

       While these hearings were required of Pratt officials by the Mayor, who sent a representative to only the last two, the fact that Pratt officials had decided on closures without, as one young woman elegantly put it, “Using my creativity,” or the creativity of any citizen to save the neighborhood libraries, made it clear that the hearings really were merely an empty exercise—a sort of required public hazing—that Pratt officials had to endure before executing their plans.

       During this hearing process, Pratt officials blamed their decision to close neighborhood libraries on budget reductions, yet their total budget has risen each year of the past decade and, for the last year that national figures are available (the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999), the Pratt ranked 17th in income out of 55 library systems serving populations of 500,000 to 999,999.

       Pratt officials cited low use figures to justify their decision to short-list 11 neighborhood branches for closure, yet those figures were not presented in terms of how many hours the branches are actually open, nor were the affected neighborhoods ever consulted about the best hours of operation for their libraries.

       While Pratt officials refused to excuse “poor-performing branches” despite inadequate hours and collections, they were quick to blame depopulation when asked why the Pratt’s overall circulation figures are among the very lowest in the nation. They made this claim despite the fact that circulation figures are expressed in per capita terms, that is, adjusted for population differences. Thus, depopulation can’t be used to cover up this Pratt administration’s own poor performance.

       Pratt officials also tried to explain away the huge, unexplained discrepancies between statements made by library administrators that 200,000 people have “actual Pratt library cards” and published internal Pratt data stating that, at last count, this number really is 62,904, also among the very lowest in the nation. They dubbed the lower number a mere “snapshot in time,” strangely ignoring the fact that it comes from the ;ibrary’s own official annual statement of registration.

       Pratt officials offered no excuse for having county residents as members and officers of the library board and responded to one young woman’s question about how she could get on the board by suggesting that she become a member of a soon-to-be-formed “Citizen’s Advisory Council.” They didn’t tell her that she has to be a member of the “club” in order to be on the board—that there is no committee structure that would allow ordinary motivated citizens (or those chosen by the Board to join the Board, for that matter) to receive the necessary experience and training to serve the library well.

       Library officials were perfectly quiet on the planned expansion of the Roland Park library. Pratt officials were willing to mention the planned Regional library in Highlandtown and got their only accolades at the last hearing—the one held near Highlandtown. They insisted that the Regional library is not the cause of branch closures. Yet if the Regional library is not the cause of this round of closures, what will happen when it is up and running and costs as much to operate as another five or six neighborhood libraries? Where will the money come from to underwrite this huge additional expense and the remaining branches?

       The most shocking statement, however, was issued near the end of the first meeting, when a Pratt official broke ranks and admitted that they likely would still close branches even if they received a substantial increase in the library budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Does that mean that budget worries are not the real reason for branch closures—that closing numerous neighborhood libraries in favor of a few large regional ones is current library policy?

       Pratt officials acknowledge that they have failed to secure what they consider adequate funding for the library system, yet claim this is not their fault because they “tried.”

       It is not surprising, really, that Pratt officials have been unable to secure funding for the library system. To convince a Mayor to make your agency a top priority, you have to believe in its mission. If Pratt officials understood the vital importance of our neighborhood libraries, they would have been holding public hearings begging citizens to help them keep these libraries open, not to consider the question of which ones to close.

       Instead of justifying their policy decisions, the statistics Pratt officials cite are an indictment of their administration. Pratt officials are not achieving success in the most basic of library indicators: circulation and card registration, matters they are trained to attend to; yet they claim this is not their fault.

       Since none of this is their fault, we are supposed to trust them to spend $8.5 million on a completely new type of library facility—something they have never done before and have not been trained to do.

       We are supposed to trust a library administration that cannot properly run the system to “enhance” services and create a “stronger” system.

       We are supposed to limit our input to three-minutes and to thank them for “trying.”

       Ought we to continue to place our faith and the future of our public library in the hands of such officials?

Eleven library branches (Forest Park, Pimlico, Govans, Gardenville, Clifton, Hollins-Payson, Washington Village, Fells Point, Highlandtown, Canton, and Dundalk Avenue)are under consideration for closure; the Pratt system intends to close five of them.

 


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This story was published on May 2, 2001.