What To Do about the Pratt


Six years ago this week, in commemorating Enoch Pratt Free Library's centennial, The Sun said, "the Pratt is still regarded as a model in the profession." That's the sort of little white lie friends sometimes engage in on celebratory occasions.

By 1986 the Pratt, once one of the nation's best public libraries -- in some experts' view the best -- was in serious decline. Today, as James Bock reported last Sunday, it is "an object of pity to library directors around the country."

Indeed, Baltimore journalists investigating this situation today often hear such things as "Baltimore ought to look at the Atlanta-Fulton County Library," or "Memphis-Shelby County is doing some things you ought to be doing," or "The Pratt could learn a lot from Tulsa."

Atlanta? Memphis? Tulsa? These are cities whose librarians and civic leaders looked to the Pratt for inspiration and guidance a generation ago.

More than wounded pride is involved in bemoaning this development. Libraries are great public assets that perform, when allowed to, an indispensable educational function as well as important recreational, intellectual and social ones. A great city and region without a great library system should be as unacceptable to the public as would be a great university without a superior library.

The Pratt's problems have been blamed on many things -- its self-perpetuating board of trustees aloof from the public, weak management by current and recent directors, changes in urban life-styles. But the real culprit is lack of money.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library is not free. It takes money to buy books, hire staff, maintain buildings. The Pratt has been starved for funds for 20 years. In constant dollars, its 1992 budget is more than one-fourth below its 1972 budget. It has had to drastically reduce staff and book buying.

* * * There are several ways to begin restoring the Pratt to financial well-being -- a prerequisite for restoring its institutional well-being:

* Private fund-raising, from individuals and organizations, public and private. In the 1980s, the library raised $3 million in donations in order to win $1 million more in federal aid. That kind of initiative must be renewed and greatly expanded.

* Increased city spending. Baltimore may be broke, but we are talking peanuts here. Libraries are among the public sector's best bargains. Less than one half of 1 percent of the city budget goes to the Pratt, yet half or more of the city's residents use it. City support is a puny $7.7 million -- less than half what Baltimore County's library receives from its government in Towson.

* Increased state aid. The state already provides nearly half of the Pratt's annual $15.6 million budget, under a program begun in the 1970s. The state gives the Pratt money in part because its research facilities and some other collections and services make it an important statewide asset. (The city contribution to the Pratt budget has gone down by a whopping two-thirds in constant 1972 dollars in 20 years. Without state aid, the Pratt would be brain dead.)

One idea previously advanced is to turn the Pratt's Central Library on Cathedral Street, with its formidable collections, into a state facility, primarily for high school and college students, serious non-recreational users and for the state government. Management of the Pratt's branches would then be contracted out to Baltimore County, which is widely regarded as having one of the best systems in the nation when it comes to branch operations. The city and county have a shared interest. Many thousands of county residents use the Pratt, and city residents check out more books from county branches than they do from the Pratt.

* * * Urban library experts believe some form of metropolitanism is the answer. Among others, Atlanta, Memphis and Tulsa have merged their libraries with an adjacent or encompassing county. This has benefited traditional and non-traditional users. Memphis-Shelby County is highly regarded for its work in inner-city poor neighborhoods that might not have been possible without merger.

"Traditional users" is a euphemism for middle class, often meaning white. But libraries play an even more crucial role in poor neighborhoods. More youths have read their way out of slums and ghettos than have dribbled, punted or homered their way out. Usually, there are few books in the homes or schools of such strivers -- only in library branches. The real victims of an impoverished Pratt are the immobile "non-traditional" users who cannot get to the county branches.

If any local government enterprise could be easily and successfully regionalized, it is library service. Some students of local government believe an area like Baltimore should unite the Pratt and all five suburban county libraries. That would require a new structure, perhaps a state-created authority, akin to the ones that run the port and the new stadium. Ideally, such an arrangement would include dedicated taxes, authorized by the public. Interestingly, referendums on library funding across the country almost always win.

For the Pratt to survive, for library service in the Baltimore region to thrive, there must be bold, innovative and dramatic action. Suburban systems may not be endangered, but as the city's inability to support the Pratt accelerates, the degradation of an institution that impacts suburbanites as much as city residents pTC becomes evermore irreversible.

Everybody has a stake in preventing the death of the Pratt. It is imperative that a blue-ribbon panel be created, representing the city, state, suburban counties and interested private groups with something significant to contribute. Its charge would be to re-invent the public library for our metropolitan area.

Baltimore's Pratt library provided a model for the nation once. It -- can do so again.

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