WRITERS RALLY AROUND THE PRATT Authors urge legislators to restore library system's budget


Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Anne Tyler and Taylor Branch are among the more than 25 Maryland-based writers who have signed a statement urging state and city legislators to aid the financially beleaguered Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"There are certain rock-bottom things that you don't do, and those have to do with the future and with children," said Mr. Branch, winner of the Pulitzer for "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63." "This concerns basic citizenship -- you can't cut into people's ability to function in a society by closing the places they learn."

Because of a cut of $1.3 million in its annual budget of $16.8 million, the Pratt announced this fall that eight branches, several in low-income areas, would be cut, and that services at the Central Library, 400 Cathedral St., would be reduced. Library officials said Tuesday that three branches would remain open as "homework centers," and that the Pratt is exploring ways to have the other five run by neighborhood groups.

Other writers signing the statement include novelists John Barth, Madison Smartt Bell and Stephen Dixon, and poets Lucille Clifton, Josephine Jacobsen, Linda Pastan and Elizabeth Spires, well as Baltimore-based film director John Waters. Mr. Bell, writer-in-residence at Goucher College, wrote the three-paragraph statement, which first was read at a rally for Pratt employees Tuesday night.

"How can Baltimore declare itself to be 'The City That Reads,' emblazon this slogan on all its public benches and public vehicles, and at the same time choose to close branches of the public library and drastically cut back on Central Library services?" the statement begins. "Most of us got a leg up, if not our very first start, in some public library, sometime, somewhere. Without that free and easy access to books, we probably wouldn't be writers now."

It concludes: "We appeal to the state and city governments to keep the branch libraries open, to avoid reduction of Central Library hours and services, and to keep the library staff and book-buying budget intact. Give the people of Maryland a chance to read and to learn and to know; that's an investment in the future we can't afford not to make."

At the Pratt, that sentiment is appreciated. "We're very much aware of, and very supportive of, the efforts of these authors," said Averil Kadis, spokeswoman for the Pratt.

"The Pratt is in the middle of the greatest financial crisis it has ever had -- the proportions of this budget crisis are immense," said David Yaffe, who conceived of the idea of a writers' statement. As a 15-year member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Pratt, a citizen's group, he has followed the library's situation with concern, he said.

Finally, last Friday he telephoned Mr. Branch, whom he did not know but remembered from a talk that the author had given at the library. Mr. Branch gave him the names of some writers he knew, and soon other writers were added.

"I got my original education from the library," said Mr. Dixon, a professor of fiction at Johns Hopkins University who was recently nominated for the National Book Award in fiction for his novel "Frog." "In a time of people suffering from this economic crisis, the cheapest form of pleasure would come not from the television but the library. And the library has always been the place for rich and poor -- a literary democracy."

"I think it's important what Madison stressed -- that libraries got us started in some way," said Ms. Tyler, winner of the Pulitzer for her novel "Breathing Lessons." "That some libraries could close is very disturbing."

Mr. Yaffe said he was unsure what other steps the writers might take, although he said the idea of sending a telegram to Gov. William Donald Schaefer had been discussed. But Ms. Jacobsen was so concerned about the Pratt's financial situation that she has begun writing letters to a list of legislators drawn up by Mr. Yaffe.

"The Pratt is considered a very special library all over the United States of America," the 83-year-old poet said. "At the Library of Congress, when I worked there in the 1970s [as poetry consultant], they had enormous respect for the Pratt. It was like Johns Hopkins [University Hospital] is in medicine -- that sort of national respect."

"The scary thing is if people will take it [the library cutbacks] quietly," Mr. Branch said. "None of us wants that to happen."

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