Enoch Pratt Free Library officials went to City Hall asking for money yesterday, and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told them not to rule out closing neighborhood branches.
"With changes in technology, it may be that this number of branches  is passe," Mr. Schmoke said during a city review of the Pratt's $17.9 million budget request for next year. "I would want the Pratt to explore . . . all options."
This year's library budget is $16.6 million.
The mayor made his comments after Pratt officials listed the tough decisions they face if $17.9 million is all the library gets: reducing hours at branches, allowing leaky roofs and other problems to go unfixed, and keeping the central branch on Cathedral Street closed on Fridays, as it has since December 1991.
While Pratt trustee President James A. Ulmer is optimistic that the library will somehow get more than it requested -- from the state or federal government if not the city -- the library's chief financial officer said $17.9 million will make for a tight year.
"We'll have to absorb all the costs of inflation and it's very unlikely that central will reopen on Fridays unless something falls out of the sky," said Gordon Krabbe, the financial director.
For the second year, the library will be forced to operate without $1.2 million in state money that was promised but then cut by the 1992 General Assembly. The library, whose Cathedral Street headquarters serves by law as the State Library Resource Center, receives 40 percent of its budget from Maryland.
The Pratt already has decided to lay off 12 full-time custodians to save $100,000 next year and is eliminating 15 jobs that are vacant.
One bright spot in the proposed budget is an increase of $500,000 for the purchase of new books and other materials, which will bring the new-book budget to $1.9 million -- about half of what the Baltimore County library spends.
Included in the proposed budget is $120,000 to study how the Pratt can better serve its patrons.
Mr. Schmoke believes that if the Pratt discovers new ways of providing people with information -- electronic methods that are cheaper than maintaining traditional library buildings -- then those avenues should be pursued.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke disagreed, declaring that closing branches was unacceptable.
"Whatever the information needs of Baltimoreans might be, I don't think we expect the library to come forward recommending the closing of branches," Mrs. Clarke said. "We've been through all that before."
Now, many branches operate only 20 hours a week as the Pratt moves staff from neighborhood to neighborhood because it can't afford full-time librarians at each location.
The newly renovated Govans branch, closed for repairs in early 1992 but not reopened because Pratt couldn't staff it, is scheduled to open July 1. To restore service to Govans, hours at Pimlico and a branch at 2511 St. Paul St. will be reduced to 20 hours a week.
The Pratt has been without an executive director since Anna Curry retired last December. A new director is expected to be named in about two weeks.