Pratt grants reprieves to 8 branches $25,000 gift, funds from trustees help avert closings in fiscal '92


Two months after announcing that eight branches of Enoch Pratt Free Library would close "permanently" because of Baltimore's darkening financial picture, the Pratt announced yesterday that it has enough spare cash to keep all 28 branches open through July 1.

As a result, the library's board of trustees abandoned the idea of turning over threatened branches to community group volunteers.

"It will be [service] on a reduced basis, but we have a commitment to make it work," said James A. Ulmer III, president of the trustees. "We're going to need more funding from the city, but this buys us some time."

The Pratt has been buying time and negotiating with angry patrons since Nov. 13, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced $1.3 million in library budget cuts and the Pratt in turn announced it would close eight branches.

After public protests in neighborhoods from Cherry Hill to Lake Clifton, the library decided to save three of the branches and only close five. Then the Pratt announced it would turn over control of the five branches -- located in Canton, O'Donnell Heights, Gardenville, the Hollins Market area and Pimlico -- to community groups. But the Pratt found $350,000 in emergency money to keep those five branches open through March while it trained non-professional volunteers.

Faced with the branch closings, residents continued to insist on keeping their local libraries as Pratt branches with Pratt librarians -- going so far as take out nearly every book from a small branch on St. Paul Street in Charles Village to show the public what an empty library looked like.

But this week the citizen protest was accompanied by a $25,000 donation to keep branches open, a gesture that prompted the library's trustees to come up with $50,000 in what Mr. Ulmer called "discretionary" board money to avert the closings at least until the end of the fiscal year.

Mr. Ulmer announced the news yesterday at a regular meeting of the trustees attended by library supporters -- in costume for a Shakespearean tragedy -- who were continuing to protest.

"I'd love to believe that all of the branches will be open for full service, but I hardly think that's possible with the mere addition of $75,000," said David Yaffe, a member of the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which voted last week to give the Pratt $25,000. "It would be a mistake to think that the constriction of library service in Baltimore is over now. This is just another way station."

Mr. Yaffe said public donations to the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library have been arriving more frequently since the most recent Pratt crisis began in November.

The Pratt has furloughed all employees for three days, with three more furlough days in the near future; laid off 17 employees on Dec. 6; and since Dec. 13 has closed its central library on Fridays.

Mr. Ulmer said the five branches targeted for closing would continue to operate on reduced schedules -- the Canton branch has been only open two days a week since December -- until a new plan can be worked out.

"We're going to have to have [community] partnerships for the libraries to continue as Pratt branches, but they'll be real libraries -- as many branches as the Pratt can have, the better," he said. "But they have to be efficient and used by the people. We can't have a branch that's only circulating 2,000 books a year."

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