Once the standard by which public libraries were measured, Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library has endured more than a decade of cuts to its budget and staff. Buildings deteriorated, collections stagnated, librarians became demoralized, and even simple house cleaning was often neglected.
The reputation of the 106-year-old library so suffered that at the recent American Library Association conference in New Orleans, other librarians winced at the mention of the Pratt, as if mourning for a fondly remembered, terminally ill relative.
Into this crisis has come Dr. Carla D. Hayden, who took control as the 11th director of the Pratt on July 1. The former deputy chief of the Chicago Public Library, she holds a Ph.D. in library science and taught the subject at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Hayden, who sees the public library as the "information utility" no less important than the gas company or phone company, must lead Pratt into the Information Age. To that end, she has been working 12 hours days, six and seven days a week. "When people see me I don't want them to say, 'That's Carla Hayden,' I want them to say: 'that's the library lady.'," she says.
QUESTION: What was the easiest, most obvious thing to fix at the Pratt?
ANSWER: Some of the physical conditions. At the Central library, there were some very visible, easy to do projects that the public will see soon.
Like the window off the second floor elevator is fully exposed and visible now. It was covered up with furniture and old screens and stuff. That window and its beautiful grillwork have been a symbol of the Pratt since [the Central was built in] 1933. We're deciding if we can put a bench there, so people can sit and read and look out. There're a lot of things like that that need to
be done. This is a beautiful, historical building, but we don't want it to feel like an old attic.
Q: What job is going to take some time?
A: The successful introduction of new information technology into
the neighborhoods. We have to train and plan how we're going to use it.
A lot of new technology is already on display at Central. But in the neighborhoods, we want to offer full-service technology, computer access to a variety of on-line data bases. Instead of getting the article
from a magazine, they'll see the article on a screen and print it out if they want. Each branch won't have to keep large subscriptions.
Q: What neighborhoods will be getting the technology and when?
A: We're looking at that now. You don't want to just put a machine out there and say, "Here it is." We have to help people use it.
Also this year, I want to experiment with a video phone, a terminal that hooks you up with a reference librarian downtown who is a subject specialist, maybe in history.
You'll be able to see them from a computer screen in a branch library and they'll see you. That's something we'd like to try this year, two of them, at least one. Get it, try it and see how it works.
If we start looking at technology as a tool, it opens doors. And we're going to try and get a company to help subsidize it. We're going to be talking to different technology companies to use Pratt as a test site. If we do these things, we would be a public library on the front edge.
If we use video phones to hook people up with a downtown reference librarian -- I'm not sure any public library has done that. And we'd write up our experience and share it with other #F libraries.
Q: Is this the kind of thing that might restore Pratt's reputation in the library community?
A: Yeah. People would say, 'What else are you going to do?' Very few public libraries are talking about technology in the neighborhoods. We'll put them in places where traditional models aren't working. Just the fact that there will be some movement will help get Pratt back into the life of the city.
Q: How will you keep the resources of the Pratt free to the public in the more expensive Information Age?
A: We have to take a hard look at our current resources of govern
ment funding and start more partnerships with the public and private sector.
Where will the library be on the Information Highway? We have to stay active as a profession to make sure the public is on the highway at nominal costs.
There is precedent for fees, such as paying for photocopying. But with technology, we have to work out for phone lines and copyrights.
If the information isn't coming in book form anymore, we may have to take money from book budgets to pay for phone lines to data bases.
L Q: Where are you going to get the money for this technology?
That's going to be a challenge. If at all possible we'll do it with money already allocated for technology. Maybe we'll use some capital money too. I need to immerse myself in the budget to work it out. The whole point of getting technology out there is to at least to try some things -- something visible -- and see how the public responds before we do anything massive. Just try some )) things out before we go and ask for more money.
Q: When will Pratt Central open on Fridays?
A: I'm not sure about that. I can't say when. I don't know if there's been that much public interest in that or not. I'm trying to find out.
Q: The public was credited with forcing Pratt to reopen the
Govans branch after it had been closed for three years. How will you change the Pratt from passive to active?
A: By capitalizing on the commitment of the staff. The staff wants the Pratt to be excellent. That's one of the main things that made me think the library can regain its stature.
I'm going to begin project-based team management instead of hierarchical management. The buck will still stop here, but I'm basically the coach, sometimes a referee.