Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, once revered as a leader among the nation's libraries, has been reduced by shrinking resources and declining circulation to an object of pity, according to library directors around the country.

While the Pratt and its community friends have scrambled to cope with the library's latest crisis -- budget cuts that threaten a batch of neighborhood branches -- little attention has been paid to an even more troubling trend: a long-term decline that has snatched the Pratt from the ranks of America's best and relegated it to mediocrity.

The problems of the 105-year-old Pratt are the same problems of The City That Reads: the flight of its core middle-class clientele, who have taken their tax base with them. The Pratt has been left, in short, with too little money, too few new books and and too few new readers.

There is resistance here to the strategies that have kept some other big-city libraries healthy, such as special library taxes or mergers with suburban systems. And a gradual takeover of the Pratt by the state, which once seemed possible, now has been rendered pie-in-the-sky thinking by Maryland's budget crisis.

The Pratt still is a valued Baltimore resource. It is the first stop for any serious student of Maryland history, the place where barroom questions and bureaucratic quandaries get their answers, home to the inveterate reader and to the illiterate adult who wants to read.

But too many lean years have eroded its book-buying budget and its staff -- from a peak of 785 in the early 1970s to 382 today -- and left the library, especially its branches, unable to give people the books they want when they want them.

"Pratt is one of the grandes dames of libraries, in many ways the mother of us all," said Ginnie Cooper, director of the Portland (Ore.) library system. "But I don't think its reputation for current operations is enviable -- not because of staff, but because of its financial situation. It's a shame."

Consider that:

* More city residents borrowed books last year from the booming Baltimore County Public Library than from their own Pratt system. Simply put, Baltimore County can afford to buy more of the books people want -- 681 copies of Alexandra Ripley's best-seller "Scarlett," for example, compared to a total of 41 for the Pratt.

* City spending for the Pratt system was -- even before the most recent round of budget cuts -- among the lowest in the nation, in a league with the likes of Detroit.

* By the most widely accepted measure of a library's success -- circulation per capita of books and other materials -- the Pratt ranks towards the bottom for cities of Baltimore's size.

"The Pratt really has been shortchanged for a long time," said John Blegen, assistant director of the Pratt until 1988, when he left to head the Glenview (Ill.) system. "I find it outrageous to

have a slogan about The City That Reads with all the things that have taken place. That seems like the height of hypocrisy to me."

Anna Curry, who has presided over a decade of austerity as the Pratt's director since 1981, said she rejects the idea that the library will only continue to "muddle through."

But she acknowledged that the same financial pressures that trimmed the Pratt's budget by $900,000 this year to $15.6 million -- supplemented by a record $693,000 in income from the library's own endowment -- may force an even deeper cut in the 1992-1993 budget.

"We're not going to give up," said James A. Ulmer III, a 52-year-old real estate developer recently elected president of the Pratt's self-governing board of trustees.

Yet he added that if present budget trends continue, the library would be "almost going back to the original grant of Enoch Pratt that said he would build a central facility and four branches."

But neither he nor the Pratt's director thinks the time is politically ripe for any radical change in how the library is financed -- such as a special library tax, a merger with Baltimore County, or a state takeover of the Pratt (Maryland already foots part of the bill for the Central Library). They don't see taxpayers at any level -- city, county or state -- as willing to fork over money for the Pratt.

"We're not the only people having financial problems," Mr. Ulmer explained. "I don't see us in the situation of trying to promulgate a library tax."

Mrs. Curry and Mr. Ulmer say the library needs to raise money privately and forge community partnerships to maintain its health -- although such measures elsewhere have not proved a substitute for adequate public support. The Pratt recently hired a development director to raise private funds, and Mr. Ulmer sees the Pratt's branches as relying increasingly on community donations and volunteers.

Some help has come from the 1,700-member Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It gave the library $47,000 last year, and David Yaffe, a director, recently organized a statement of support for the library that was signed by about 40 prominent writers with ties to Maryland, including novelists Anne Tyler, John Barth and Madison Smartt Bell; historians Taylor Branch and William Manchester, and poets Karl Shapiro and Josephine Jacobsen.

"We're encouraging people to write to state legislators and city council members, and we're going to try to have a presence when the legislature meets this winter," said Dana Reed, a Baltimore attorney who is president of the Friends. "We have always done our work in a low-key way, but now we have to be more vocal about it. We've been discovering that everybody thinks the library is wonderful, but it doesn't have a voice."

Other cities do better

Despite the national economic downturn, not all cities of Baltimore's size have deteriorating library systems. In big-city libraries that have managed to retain adequate funds, the key has often been to win financial support directly from the voters.

Cleveland, a city comparable to Baltimore in size and economic health, has one of the nation's wealthiest library systems. Its budget is more than twice the Pratt's, and circulation per capita is nearly five times higher than in Baltimore. Not coincidentally, the Cleveland Public Library also spends five times as much -- $7 million a year -- on books.

"Libraries get in a kind of spiral, which moves either upward or downward," said Marilyn Gell Mason, Cleveland's library director. Because we are well-funded, we are able to provide a high quality of service. We have branches within walking distance of everybody in the city. There is a lot of material to check out, and it's current. That results in a high level of usage."

As in Baltimore, which also has a lot of branches but little current material to check out, Cleveland's library gets about half its support from the state. But it also benefits from a special city property tax that contributed $12.1 million to this year's library budget. In addition, this fall Cleveland voters backed with a 71 percent majority a $90 million bond issue for restoration of the main library.

"There's nothing anyone can do without adequate funding," Ms. Mason said. "If a library can go directly to the taxpayers and let the taxpayers decide whether to spend more money, my guess is they would. That would turn the spiral in the other direction."

John N. Berry III, editor-in-chief of Library Journal, said big-city libraries "need to be nudged and forced to go out and play politics. There's a tremendously deep reservoir of support for the institutions. It's a question of finding ways to tap it politically."

Maryland's state librarian, J. Maurice Travillian, thinks a library tax would pass handily in Baltimore, but he said Maryland politicians "hate" the idea of special taxes.

"They don't want their hands tied," he said.

The San Francisco Public Library, which serves a city of similar size (724,000) to Baltimore (736,000), has also bucked tough times by going directly to the voters. The library's $20.6 million budget comes almost entirely from the city's general fund. But in 1988 the library went to the voters with a $109.5 million bond issue for a new main library and renovated branches. It breezed to approval with 77 percent of the vote.

San Francisco's new main library will have a conference center, auditorium and TV studio, as director Kenneth E. Dowlin pursues his vision of a city library as "community catalyst." His goal is also to link the library electronically with every San Francisco home within a decade -- not only to circulate books, but also to connect citizens with City Hall.

"Running a library is like landing an airplane," Mr. Dowlin said. "You don't look right down the nose of the plane. You have to look out a mile to get the runway."

Merger aids Atlanta

In Atlanta, a merger made a difference.

Atlanta's library was moribund until 1983 when it merged with the Fulton County system. The resulting Atlanta-Fulton Public Library has undergone a major expansion, with 17 new or renovated branches opening in the past three years. The money came from a 1984 bond issue passed by an overwhelming 78 percent majority.

Atlanta-Fulton, which serves a population of 682,000, has weathered big budget cuts in the past two years, but circulation still hit a record high of 3.1 million last year -- nearly double the Pratt's.

Charles W. Robinson, director of the Baltimore County library system, which has assumed a leadership role among U.S. libraries such as the Pratt once enjoyed, said a city-county merger here would provide more equitable, better library service -- but is "highly unlikely."

"Service to the metropolitan area should follow population lines, not subdivision lines. All the public wants is the books," Mr. Robinson said.

But any merger would be politically sensitive, he added. The city would fear loss of control over the library, and county taxpayers would resist subsidizing the Pratt system.

The Pratt's resources already are available to all Marylanders, as are those of any public library in the state, and its well-respected reference arm -- including telephone and late-night service -- receives wide use. At the same time, city dwellers slip over the line to borrow best-sellers and other high-demand items from amply stocked Baltimore County.

Mr. Robinson, a fierce critic of expensive central libraries, said his library "tries to satisfy 90 percent of the people 90 percent of the time. Ten percent of the people are never satisfied at all." He said that the Pratt, in an era of scarce resources, also needs to make choices about whom it serves.

"If you go to a Chevy dealer and ask for a '37 fender, they'll tell you, 'Shove off, Buster.' For some reason we think the public good requires we should get the book equivalent of a '37 Chevy fender. If you buy that argument, you should be prepared to put up big bucks," he said. "Unfortunately, the city doesn't have the money."

In Dallas, library director Patrick M. O'Brien has achieved some success by making choices.

The Dallas Public Library has been on hard times since the Texas economy started to slide in 1986. Its $14.2 million budget today is less than the Pratt's -- and $2 million less than it was in Dallas five years ago.

To cope with austerity, Mr. O'Brien decided to focus on the basics -- books and information. That has meant cutting out television production, closing music and film centers and limiting the copies of any book the library owns to a measly two for the entire system.

But Dallas, which serves a city of 1 million, has opened two new branch libraries, devoted increasing resources to children and posted record high circulation for six years in a row -- 4.6 million last year, nearly three times the Pratt's.

"We have had to fight tooth and nail to maintain our status," Mr. O'Brien said. "With the tax base dwindling, the crime rate going up and the infrastructure deteriorating, what can I say? Potholes become more important than books."

Eleanor Jo Rodger, a former Pratt staffer who is now executivdirector of the Chicago-based Public Library Association, said that as the economy ravages library systems across the country, the "only across-the-board truth is that it seems better to do a few things well with diminished resources than to try to do everything."

PTC The Pratt's own "A Plan for the 1990's," which pledges that the Pratt "will forge ahead as a national leader among libraries," gives lip service to making "choices about where to target efforts."

Now budget cuts have forced those choices upon the Pratt. The 28 branch libraries have felt the brunt of the reductions, continuing a trend of recent years. The Pratt now spends only about half its budget on the branches although they account for about two-thirds of the library's circulation.

Twenty-six of the branches are now open. The effect of the recent cutbacks may mean that the two closed for renovations will stay shuttered indefinitely, that three will remain open only as homework centers, and that five could be severed from the Pratt system and turned over to community volunteers.

The Pratt's branches were largely built during an era when each Baltimore neighborhood had its own movie theater, drugstore and food market, the city's population was 200,000 higher than today and two-thirds of all Baltimore area residents lived in the city, as opposed to less than a third today. In some neighborhoods, the branch libraries remain only as a delightful anachronism -- or, some think, an extravagance.

Mrs. Curry, the library's director, says that, ideally, a city of Baltimore's reduced size needs "about 18 to 20" library branches.

However, closing branches presents not only a political problem -- why target one neighborhood and spare another when all need libraries in a city with a school system in crisis? -- but also a library problem.

Branches are "where in most library systems the real action occurs, the rubber meets the road," said Mr. Travillian, the state librarian. "The closer you are to library service, the more likely you are to use it. Library use drops off sharply with geography."

Despite Baltimore community groups' concern about their threatened branches, librarians elsewhere hold little hope that neighborhoods can make a long-term success of running libraries on a volunteer basis.

"It suggests that all a library is, is a collection of miscellaneous materials that may or may not be kept up to date," said Cleveland's Ms. Mason. "That's just a building with books. It tells people they're getting libraries, and they're not."

For a time before the state's budget crisis, the Pratt's future looked, if not bright, at least manageable. Maryland was moving in phases to foot the entire bill for the Pratt's Central Library, which has been designated Maryland's state library. That would have left the branches to be funded by the city.

Now, however, the state has pulled back, and city support for the Pratt has been slashed by nearly 40 percent in only four years. A state takeover to save the Pratt -- akin to its assuming control of Baltimore's community college, zoo and city jail -- seems remote.

The future of the Pratt and its great tradition "is really primarily a function of dollars," Mr. Travillian said. "What happens to Pratt depends on what happens to Baltimore."

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