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What the Pratt's Woes Portend for the Future of Libraries

Uli Loskot
Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, hopes that closing branches will allow her to make the most of what remains: "We'll be strongerýmaybe smaller, [but] ready to grow with the city."

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 5/9/2001

If you believe the American public is apathetic, threaten to close a public library. MWhen Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, announced plans close five of the Pratt's 28 branches this year, the city of Baltimore reacted with fury. Hundreds crowded into the four public forums on the topic. Groups of local activists networked and created a Web site and a list-serv. Journalists rushed to interview schoolchildren whose neighborhood branches might be at risk.

Baltimoreans aren't unusual in their emotions or their behavior. Across the country, politicians and citizens alike rise up against library closures. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch once said that he'd sooner attempt to close a firehouse than a library.

Hayden is finding out what he meant. Cast as the heavy in Baltimore's latest civic morality, she strikes a perhaps understandably defensive note in interviews these days.

"I didn't come to Baltimore to close libraries," asserts the former Chicago library chief, who took over the Pratt in 1993. "The reason I left my home and my family was not to watch over the demise of a library."

What she may be watching over, according to library experts, is a bumpy but inevitable metamorphosis of the urban library and its relationship with its community. Buffeted by everything from rapid technological change to urban flight--and, in Baltimore, by aging buildings, soaring costs, and shrinking budgets--libraries are transforming themselves to adapt to changing needs and habits. They are moving away from a model of service designed for a bygone era and toward one in which, Pratt officials and some experts insist, more branches doesn't necessarily equal a more effective system.

"There is no ideal number of branches," says Joey Rodger, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, an industry association. Some big-city systems are building new branches, she notes, while prosperous, fast-growing Phoenix, with a population of 1.3 million, makes do with only 13 of them--because "in Phoenix, everyone drives everywhere." The neighborhood-branch system, Rodger says, "comes from a time when urban communities were much less mobile. When a neighborhood library was a selection of books and staff people."

Today's public libraries need more than books and staff to serve the community, library officials maintain. Where they were once monuments to books, libraries today have become information and technology centers that serve patrons well beyond the traditional geographic boundaries. The personal computer and the advent of the Internet have revolutionized the ways that people read, learn, and do research. Patrons are borrowing fewer books and magazines while spending more time using a library's computer resources. Traditional methods of assessing use don't work anymore.

"Circulation around the country is level or going down. The reason for that is that a lot of the information people used to borrow, they are now getting online," Rodger says. Rather than subscribing to print publications, libraries are buying databases that allow for a wider audience to read periodicals. "You used to get a circulation point if somebody checked out a back copy of a magazine," she says. "Now they look at it online, print it out, and you don't get that point."

"The decline in circulation is consistent with what a lot of other public libraries are finding," says Leigh Estabrook, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "You're finding an increase in reference questions. The public is looking to libraries to help them sort out the validity of data on the Internet."

Estabrook says it's "logical" for a system like the Pratt to reduce branches, "especially given the significant drop in [Baltimore's] population" and its budget problems. "For example, you see 15 million hits to the [Pratt's] Web page, showing that people are able to use library services remotely."

Libraries can now have a community presence simply by installing a computer kiosk in a public place so that patrons can check e-mail, access the Internet, and connect with the library to ask questions or request books. Rodger compares kiosks to turn-of-the-century deposit collections, where public libraries would place as many as 100 books at a post office or other public facility to serve patrons who couldn't get to a branch.

As libraries have become less important to patrons as places for reading and research (at least, of traditional printed materials), they have become more important as places per se, Rodger notes--a gathering spot not for books but for people, a secure shelter from often mean streets.

That role is not part of the system's original charge, as Philip Arthur Kalisch noted in the 1969 book The Enoch Pratt Free Library: A Social History; nor is it a function for which it receives city funding. But increasingly, it is the role that dominates the library debates and ratchets up the pressure over branch closings.

"Branches are comfortable, safe gathering places for our children and neighbors," Pat Gorman, youth development director for Advocates for Children and Youth, wrote in a letter to The Sun published on May 2. Library activists and children's advocates often protest branch closures by wondering aloud where little ones will spend their after-school hours. In the past, a community center or an at-home parent in the neighborhood may have provided that space. Now, with public funding tight across the board, other agencies and organizations are being squeezed or even shuttered, and libraries have become de facto social-service providers.

Libraries not only shelter children who find themselves at loose ends during the day, but also adults. "The public library is one of the last remaining open spaces . . . increasingly a place of last resort," Estabrook says. "I worked in a soup kitchen [in Illinois], and when the soup kitchen closed, they all went to the library." This changing role--the library as neighborhood bulwark--is "bound up in the abandonment of a social-support structure. The whole issue of latchkey kids has been brought up a lot."

In an "ideal world," Estabrook says, urban libraries could and would serve this function. And some do attempt to fill in the gaps, creating special programs and resources for patrons, such as helping the jobless find work. In Skokie, Ill., for example, a trained staffer serves as "adult version of a guidance counselor," Rodger says. "The depth that any library chooses to go, from having information resources to a [designated staffer]--it's a matter of local community need, where else those needs are being met in the community, and the resources the library has."

But what's possible in a relatively well-to-do community such as Skokie may not be practical in Baltimore. This aspect of the changing face of library usage creates a sort of double bind: Serving the function activists, for the best reasons, most decry losing when a branch closes further drains the system's resources, increasing the pressure to close branches.

"Decisions are often made out of really serious economic pressures," Estabrook says. The demands put on urban libraries today, she says, can be "literally overwhelming. [It] overwhelms resources, overwhelms staff. The public librarians I know are doing a fantastic job in the face of being asked to do things that are extraordinary."

If what's happening at the Pratt is consistent with a changing library philosophy across the country, most urban systems have managed to avoid closing branches; some are even building new ones. But Rodger, who worked as a Pratt librarian in the 1980s, notes that the system here is hemmed in by larger forces many of its peers aren't facing. "In the past five years, more urban areas have enjoyed financial growth," while Baltimore has lagged behind the boom, she says. "This is a city problem, not a library problem in Baltimore."

Facing yet another reporter's questions, Carla Hayden cycles through the responses she's repeated in the past two months: The Enoch Pratt Free Library has been chronically underfunded for nearly two decades. The system's budget has been cut $5.1 million since 1998. Many branches are understaffed and have facilities that are too small and in need of repair.

But Pratt officials contend that keeping the system healthy means scaling back. Interviews with Hayden used to be dominated by talk of regional libraries and her larger vision for the system, but not today. "We're dealing with closures as a reality," she says. "We're dealing with fiscal shortcomings."

While Baltimore's population has declined 28 percent in the past 30 years--from 905,787 in 1970 to 651,154 residents in 2001, according to library figures--the number of branches has actually increased by one. In the same period, the city's contribution to the library's budget has fallen by nearly a third, from just over $6 million to $4.2 million when adjusted for inflation. Book circulation has dropped 62 percent.

"We have cut our book and material budgets to the point that we are well below industry standards," Hayden says. "[Library patrons] are going out to the county and we know that. We're not doing basic maintenance. We've reduced our equipment costs. We've reduced administrative staff."

The Pratt recently launched a giving campaign that it hopes will become an annual source of funds. Hayden hopes to raise $2 million by June 30; $1.7 million has been raised so far. For now, though, she's trying to convince the city and its residents that closing branches will allow her to strengthen what remains, placing the library in "a position that as the growth of the city happens in the next five to 10 years, we'll be stronger--maybe smaller, [but] ready to grow with the city."

She says she recognizes and appreciates the role the Pratt plays in a neighborhood. But the branches Baltimoreans grew up with and are fighting to preserve aren't the branches of today. "When you have a library like the Pratt, you're pleased that the library is trusted," Hayden says. "[But] that puts a lot on one agency when all of those other agencies are gone--a lot on one agency that receives less than 1 percent of the city's budget."

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