Giving them less of what they want?


For the past three decades, the philosophy of the Baltimore County library system has been summed up in the slogan, "Give 'em what they want."

By giving the public what they want from a library -- all the best-sellers, audio and video materials, easy parking -- the system has routinely racked up circulation figures topped only by those of the Los Angeles and New York public libraries.

Unfortunately for the Baltimore County library system, County Executive Roger Hayden has a slogan of his own: "Government can no longer be all things to all people." For the county in general, that means the reduction or elimination of many services -- including what Mr. Hayden calls "good and useful" programs -- to help balance a government budget that is $31.7 million in the red.

Not even the library system, one of the best and most useful services the county offers, will elude the budget ax. The Hayden administration reportedly wants to close the full-service Loch Raven branch and eight of the satellite outlets.

Though a painful development, this can't come as a bombshell to library director Charles Robinson and his staff. The writing has been on the wall -- in red ink -- for some time. Library officials have had to take various cost-cutting measures in recent years, such as closing branches on Sunday and stopping the mailing of overdue notices. Also, when county employees were furloughed for five days during last year's budget crisis, library workers voluntarily took 10 furlough days so the system's book-buying budget would not be touched.

Preserving the book budget is a top priority of Mr. Robinson's. The number of branches can change -- he sees a day when the system is trimmed to about 10 first-rate libraries -- but the book budget must stay relatively unchanged if the people are to continue getting what they want.

This approach might be a hard sell in the city. The Enoch Pratt libraries are more neighborhood-rooted and the inevitable uproar over each suggestion of a Pratt closing makes the politicians run for cover. However, consolidation could gain acceptance in the commuter-culture county, where most suburbanites wouldn't mind a longer car or bus ride to another library if their local branch closed.

Three months ago, while anticipating a large cut in the library budget, Mr. Robinson said in an interview, "There are good and bad compromises, but there are compromises that will maintain our library system in a healthy way."

Some people won't call it a good compromise when the result is the closing of library branches. Yet, given the current state of the county's economy, it's a compromise that can keep the system in good shape for years to come.

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