In preparation for an overhaul of its service to Baltimore, the Enoch Pratt Free Library is studying an extensive survey that rates everything from which branches have the most helpful librarians to which ones have the most frustrating hours of operation.
Along with a separate study delivered this month on the condition of the Pratt's buildings, the users' survey will help library Director Carla D. Hayden map a three-year plan to take the 109-year-old system into the 21st century.
The plan is expected to be released to the public for comment by mid-September, with implementation to begin in January.
The 227-page users' survey -- commissioned for $40,945 from library consultant George D'Elia in collaboration with the University of Minnesota -- is on file in the Pratt's Maryland Room downtown and will be available in the 28 neighborhood branch libraries next week.
Overall, a little more than 1 percent of the 4,414 people who completed questionnaires said they were dissatisfied with the Pratt's service. More than 25 percent said they were extremely satisfied. About 7 percent did not address the satisfaction issue, with the rest spread between "somewhat dissatisfied" and "very satisfied."
"For so long, libraries have tried to be so many things to so many people that they spread themselves too thin," Dr. Hayden said Tuesday. "With the [economic] realities facing us, we need to zero in on what our primary role should be."
That role will change from neighborhood to neighborhood as the users' survey is applied. The study, compiled this year, shows the idiosyncratic portraits of each branch.
For example, users in each branch were asked to name the most important reason they went to a particular branch. The Broadway and Lake Clifton and Northwood branches were cited more than any others as an aid to formal education, such as literacy. The Central Pratt topped the list for people wanting reference information on business. And people using the Roland Park branch, more than at any other, said they came for popular materials or pure enjoyment.
The St. Paul street branch in Charles Village was rated as having the most helpful librarians and Central Pratt, closed Fridays for several years because of lack of money and closed Sundays from May to October, was ranked the least convenient in hours of operation.
"If you don't pay attention to this, people may not think of you as useful any longer," said Dr. Hayden, who did not expect the results to cause any branch closings.
The Pratt's budget is $20.8 million, which Dr. Hayden said may or may not be enough to make necessary changes. The library is looking to fill a vacancy for a development officer, who will try to raise outside money.
"The public might see better use of what we already have or the use of our buildings in different ways. People aren't saying they don't need us -- they want us open more and they need us in different ways. They're saying they will come if we provide what they need."
In the poorer neighborhoods, that means basic reference materials considered standard in most middle-class families, such as computers and encyclopedias.
"The majority of the people who said they came to the library to educate themselves and their children were [from lower] economic levels. Unfortunately that sometimes corresponded to race," Dr. Hayden said. "You look at this and ask: 'Why are more African-Americans at lower economic levels?' I know life's not fair, but we have to be able to provide the same CD-ROM products to those children that a child from a higher background has at home. The library doesn't do things in dramatic, everyday ways that save lives, but that's what we try to do over the long term."
As technology continues to take over more of a librarian's roles -- such as delivering book reviews on CD-ROM -- staff will spend less time clipping newspapers and more time dealing with the public. Increasingly, they will be guiding library patrons onto the Information Highway.
"We need to trust technology more," Dr. Hayden said.