Role of Pratt’s Exploration Center Clarified

by Betsy Diamant-Cohen,
    Manager of the Exploration Center
       I am writing in response to the “Commentary” by Jane Shipley which appeared in the June edition of the Baltimore Chronicle. Ms. Shipley’s portrait of the Exploration Center at Port Discovery suffers from serious omissions and erroneous information.

       The Exploration Center was opened in 1998 and was funded by a grant awarded to Port Discovery. It is a special children’s library that was designed to expand and enhance the educational themes of the museum.

       Thus, our collection contains books about heroes, persistence, goal setting, risk taking, imagination, dealing with doubt, etc. We also have a large number of non-fiction books relating to museum exhibits such as books on ancient Egypt, money, and construction. As part of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, however, we have access to the collections of all the other Pratt libraries; when books outside of our collection are requested, they are readily available.

       The Exploration Center is open six days a week (not seven as reported by Ms. Shipley). Nearly every day we offer one or more public programs for children and their parents, and these are well-attended.

       Unattended children do come into our library. In fact, the bulk of our local visitors are children from the Jonestown neighborhood. Ms. Shipley calls the Exploration Center “a place that ignores the modern urban realities of latch-key kids with after-school hours on their hands to spend creatively or destructively.” This is blatantly untrue. We provide a safe haven for kids who would otherwise be in the streets after school.

       And children do visit the Exploration Center on their own. Neighborhood children walk through the MTA tunnel that runs under President Street, for example. Children who used to live in the Flag House apartments and now live in other parts of the city take buses or walk distances to come back and visit us, since they have such positive feelings about our library.

       In addition to welcoming neighborhood kids, we have regular preschool programs for local groups such as: Jonestown Daycare, Jonestown Headstart, Pleasant View Headstart, Dunbar Daycare, Metro Delta Headstart, Bright Futures Daycare, Martin Luther King—St. Bernadines site, St. Jerome’s Headstart, Martin Luther King-Eutaw Site, Herring Run Headstart, Martin Luther King- Rutland Site, and Midtown Early Headstart.

       This month, a typical month, we have provided afternoon programs for groups from: City Springs Elementary School, The Lab School, William Paca, House of Ruth. Other months, we have had programs for groups from Diggs-Johnson, Harlem Park (YMCA), William Paca, Raising Strong Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club of Maryland, and Paul’s Place.

       The Vision Christian Academy has also been coming to us on a weekly basis to use our computers, and students from the Baltimore City Transitional Academy also use the computers in the afternoon.

       The reason we are able to reach so many local groups in our afternoon programs is because Port Discovery’s Community Outreach department brings these groups into the museum, and includes the library. In fact, the staff at Port Discovery impress upon the children the importance of having a library card.

       Many of the adults who receive library cards at the Exploration Center are not tourists; they’re city residents.

       In June, 2000, a survey was taken of neighborhood youth from Jonestown. The Exploration Center was mentioned in a positive light a number of times. When asked what they do for recreation, the two responses given were: Read for pleasure, and go to the library. When asked to list the strengths of the community, the third strength listed was “Library has lots of books.” When asked which neighborhood services their families use, the answers were: “Bank, stores/restaurants, library.” Considering the fact that we had only been open for a year and a half at that time, it is clear that our community ties are strong and important.

       In addition to this, we provide a place for teenagers to fill community service hours. We have had six young volunteers who came to help out at the library on a regular basis. This gave them practical work experience, a sense of pride in themselves, as well as a place to go every day after school when needed.

       The partnership between Port Discovery and the Enoch Pratt Free Library is a great benefit to the city of Baltimore. It is a way to share costs and resources, and provide wonderful resources. In what other library will a Baltimore City child be able to hear a story about traveling down the Nile River and seeing a mummy, and then be able to travel down the Nile River and see a mummy in the nearby museum exhibit?

       Our location inside a museum enriches the types of experiences the children can have when they come to visit us. The museum has an agreement that we are able to use museum exhibits as part of library programs, as long as the program starts and stops in the library, and there is a librarian with the group at all times. We make good use of this privilege.

        The collaboration between the Pratt Library and Port Discovery is a good example of the kind of “creative problem solving” or “thinking outside of the box” which many have recommended for the Pratt.

Jane Shipley responds:

       Ms. Diamant-Cohen’s description of her job sounds more like that of a Port Discovery staff member than a Pratt librarian. The other private museums in Baltimore that operate libraries (notably The Walters and the Historical Society) do so with their own funds rather than those of a self-proclaimed cash-strapped public agency struggling to accomplish its own mission.

       If Ms. Diamant-Cohen considers herself a Pratt librarian, why did she fail even to acknowledge the glaring disparity between the resources lavished on the Exploration Center and those grudgingly assigned to the Clifton branch (e.g., 45 versus 12 hours open/week)?

       Furthermore, written reports claim that the Port Discovery library is geared for children aged 12 and under. I wonder if Ms. Diamant-Cohen would feel comfortable with her young children walking through the MTA tunnel, taking buses, or walking “distances” (I wouldn’t). If the Exploration Center is doing such a good job serving neighborhood children, why are its use statistics so embarrassingly low, and where were the kids on that rainy Saturday morning or that Tuesday afternoon? Just how many children are we talking about anyway?

       Finally, is there a proven pedagogical advantage to using books as an immediate preparation for a museum experience? Are we certain that excited, impatient children provide a receptive audience for this educational ploy? Also, do we know how it feels for children lacking the price of admission to be allowed to sample the offerings of Port Discovery museum only at a librarian’s discretion?

       I believe librarians in a public library should respond to the expressed needs of their patrons, not those of a museum. Providing our citizens with trained educational consultants is one of the greatest services a library can offer, and this service distinguishes the educational experience available in a library from the force-fed variety found in our classrooms.

       Let’s take care of our neighborhood children in a facility they can consider their own and access easily and safely before we try to meet the needs of a museum created to attract tourists.

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This story was published on June 27, 2001.