COMMENTARY:

Who Should Be In Charge
of the Pratt Library?
by Jane Shipley
In 1948, Pratt Library proposed reducing the number of branches from 26 to 22, and consolidating the abandoned branches with new libraries. Then-Mayor D’Alesandro responded, “You had better give the people something for their tax dollar and not take something away from them...keep the present branches where they are and build more.”
       Last fall, I suggested to Mayor O’Malley that it is wrong for county residents to be running our public library. While county library boards restrict membership to county residents, Pratt’s by-laws permit the President of the Board, the President-Elect, the Treasurer, and other board members to run our city library while living in the county.

       In a recent “letter of advice,” the Attorney General’s staff stated its belief that Pratt Trustees must live in the city. Indeed, this is only common sense. County residents should not be allowed to oversee the expenditure of millions of city tax dollars—especially on a board that, through its independent nature, is totally unaccountable to the public—let alone make policy that will solely and directly affect city residents.

       During our meeting, I also told the Mayor that the Pratt’s convoluted Board structure is absurd (Pratt Trustees have created a shadow “Board of Directors” that does all of the work and includes even more county residents), and that the time has come to insist that an institution now totally dependent upon public funding have a publicly-appointed and publicly-accountable board.

       Let the Trustees keep their title, I suggested, but reduce their role to guardianship of the Pratt endowment. Create a publicly-appointed Board of Directors—all city residents—to run the Library.

       Mayor O’Malley yawned through the entire meeting (at the time, I attributed this to overwork, but now I think it reflected his boredom with the subject) and objected to the idea that he might “have to” appoint yet another board. He only perked up when I handed him the list of Trustees and Directors to review—he apparently was unfamiliar with it.

       So, where does our Mayor stand on the library issue today? He doesn’t seem to be applying any independent, critical thinking skills to the matter. Instead, he is swallowing the Pratt’s plans intact and seeking public approbation for making “the hard decision.”

‘Big Tommy’ Had Different View

       But the decision to close five neighborhood libraries isn’t a “hard decision,” it is a wrong decision. It isn’t even particularly innovative—it is a proposal dredged up from Pratt’s past. In 1948, the Director of the Library proposed “reducing the number of branches from 26 to 22,” and consolidating the abandoned branches with new libraries. Then-Mayor D’Alesandro responded, “You had better give the people something for their tax dollar and not take something away from them...keep the present branches where they are and build more.”

Meaningless Statistics

       O’Malley is attempting to justify his unpopular and uncreative stance with his usual reliance on facts and figures. In his statement on libraries issued July 18, however, he put his name to a document that invokes meaningless statistics and presents inaccurate numbers for New York City and Portland (see www.savelibraries.org for a detailed analysis).

       The meaningless statistics purport to describe the “ratio of libraries per capita comparable to most large cities.” Because density differs among cities, O’Malley should have looked at the number of libraries per square mile, which paints a very different picture, especially with the application of accurate statistics, and shows that Baltimore will not compare well with other cities if the five neighborhood libraries close. This sloppy reckoning casts doubt on all of the statistics released by the Mayor’s office.

       O’Malley also refers to the reduced population of the city, ignoring the facts that the physical size of the city has not shrunk and that those who are “left” in the city may need library service more than those who abandoned the city.

       O’Malley’s insistence on following a plan devised by a Schmoke-era Library Director flies in the face of his campaign promises to listen to community leaders. In fact, in a Sunpapers editorial supporting O’Malley’s proposal, such individuals were referred to as “civic busybodies.” Thus, an extension of O’Malley’s reasoning insults the very people he courted during his campaign.

Businesses To Be Displaced

       Some of the things O’Malley is not hearing include the illogic of building a library six times larger than necessary in one neighborhood and constructing that library, not on one of Baltimore’s many vacant lots, but on a site occupied by an historic theater (that people want to save) and a half dozen viable businesses that will have to relocate.

       O’Malley is not telling us where Pratt will get the money (at least as much as needed to operate five neighborhood libraries) to run this “mega-branch.” Should the City build four of these mega-branches, as Pratt officials plan, our library system will need substantially increased funding or, more likely, will be reduced to these four mega-facilities plus one neighborhood library—undoubtedly the soon-to-be expanded one in Roland Park, whose neighborhood has ample fundraising resources.

       Thus, our entire system of neighborhood libraries is in jeopardy.

       O’Malley is not considering research that validates the common sense notion that library use decreases as distance from home to library increases. He and library officials are banking on the mere possibility (uninformed by even a survey) that more people living near Highlandtown will begin to use the Pratt if a mega-library is built. While investing in this possibility, the Mayor is ignoring the sad reality that residents of Gardenville, Pimlico, Dundalk, Fells Point, and Hollins-Payson will be deprived of neighborhood library access.

A Case of Double Taxation

       O’Malley is also not listening to voices that tell him it is wrong for Baltimore City residents to contribute $6 million each year to the $13 million needed to support the State Library (formerly Pratt Central—officially known by the awkward name of the “State Library Resource Center”).

       When Pratt Central became the State Library in 1971, the publicized plan was that the State would eventually cover all of its operating costs. Now, 30 years later, state legislators still expect city residents to contribute nearly half of the funds needed to run the State Library—an expectation that does not apply to the residents of any other subdivision and that subjects city residents to double taxation (paying for the State Library once through their State taxes, and again through their City taxes). This is as nonsensical as it would be to tell residents of D.C. that they must support the Library of Congress through local taxation because they live near the facility.

O’Malley’s Legacy In Jeopardy

       Instead, O’Malley is listening to a Director of the Library who has, with impunity, misled the public and made plans behind closed doors. O’Malley has failed to scrutinize the operation of an agency that privileges a library in a tourist attraction over a neighborhood library, that loses hundreds of thousands of dollars in a mismanaged gift shop, that is responsible for some of the worst circulation and card registration figures in the country, and that plans to expand a library in the neighborhood where many Trustees live—Roland Park—while closing more dearly-needed libraries in much less privileged neighborhoods.

       O’Malley is listening to a Library Director who, without a legal board discussion or vote, feels she has the power to announce five libraries for closure and to offer up the five jeopardized neighborhood libraries (and naming rights) at a price of $5 million each, implying that nothing less will keep them open.

       O’Malley’s staff has attempted to reassure a furious public by asserting that, contrary to the Pratt’s plans, he will allow no more libraries to close. O’Malley will not be Mayor forever, however, and, unless we change State law, Pratt Trustees are appointed for life. Hence O’Malley is making a promise he will not always be in a position to keep.

       O’Malley is not listening to voices telling him that in a few years most people will not recall the name of the Director of the Library or any of Pratt’s Board members. Instead, they will remember O’Malley as the Mayor who was elected to shut down drug corners but instead shut down Baltimore—rec centers, PAL centers, fire houses, schools, and libraries.

       I guess we should be glad O’Malley is giving the police department everything it wants—we are obviously going to need well-equipped protectors.

       It is time for O’Malley to wake up and listen to the citizens of Baltimore City instead of residents of Baltimore County. He must reconfigure the Board of our public library and reconsider his uncritical approval of the city’s huge contribution to the State Library of dollars sorely needed by our neighborhood libraries. He must recognize the folly of a policy that privileges some neighborhoods while depriving others. His political resume is at stake, as is his legacy to the City.


Jane Shipley is a resident of South Charles Village.

 


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This story was published on August 1, 2001.