RESURRECTING THE PRATT Carla Hayden has restored some of the library's former glory, but her toughest test lies ahead as she confronts the need to close branches.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Enoch Pratt Public Library trustees meet in the board room at the Central Library, director Carla D. Hayden takes a seat on the north side of the table, her back to the portrait of the library's benefactor and namesake, so he appears to be staring over her shoulder. Occasionally, she steals a glance back at him and -- she swears -- his expression changes.

"Literally, he sometimes looks calmer," she says. "Other times, he looks like, 'What are you doing?'"

On this particular day, the board room is empty and the sky is the pale, washed-out yellow that follows a summer storm in Baltimore. In this eerie light, the eyes of the old industrialist appear to beam at the latest steward of his beloved library, although his mouth remains stern.

For three years, those who love and care about Baltimore's 110-year-old library system have been beaming in the presence of Carla Hayden. From small, tangible tasks to sweeping institutional changes, she has already put her mark on the institution that H.L. Mencken once called the city's "cock-eyed stepchild." Library Journal, in selecting her as librarian of the year for 1995, speculated that her name will one day join the roster of its greatest directors: Joseph Wheeler, Edwin Castagna, Emerson Greenaway.

But now, Hayden, with the board's backing, is poised to make the one change that is, in the words of Peggy Sullivan, a former American Library Association president who started her career at the Pratt, "the quickest way for a director to ruin his or her career."

Carla Hayden is preparing to close branches.

Since 1987, when three branches closed after a bruising public debate replete with accusations of racism and political favoritism, the Pratt has not closed any branch permanently. But when Hayden faces her board next month, she is expected to present a detailed facilities plan that will include the end of some branches, while building new structures that would serve more neighborhoods.

"There will be controversy, there's no mistaking it," says board chairman Robert S. Hillman. "People just don't like closing libraries."

It is hoped the call for new buildings, which would be the first since 1971, will help cushion the blow. Don't think of it as losing a branch, Hayden says; think of it as gaining new state-of-the-art centers that will better serve the city. Think of a city with library "kiosks," patterned on automatic teller machines, and libraries housed in community centers or public schools. Think of a library that's available 24 hours a day, like the Pratt's current Internet services, with its 30,000 hits a day.

"Closing in itself is not a panacea," she says carefully. "The question is, what do we need now?"

Growing up, she was the girl with her nose in a book. Of course. Shy, she carried her books everywhere -- Nancy Drew, historical romances -- in order to hide behind them. Even in the bosom of her close-knit family, she needed a book to survive gatherings. To this day, she remembers the odd bits of knowledge she picked up from all that reading ("Rushes, they were always changing the rushes in those castles"), as well as the two nicknames her hobby earned her, Grandma and Squirrel.

Fascinated with librarian stereotypes, she muses on how the Pratt could use this image in marketing. "Imagine a librarian, pulling off her glasses and letting her hair down. If we could only get 15 or 20 seconds during the Super Bowl -- 'Not your same old librarian.' "

And yet there is little today that is "bookish" about Carla Hayden, or suggestive of an old maid librarian. At 43, she looks younger, with short, spiky hair and sophisticated suits, worn with dramatic pins and earrings. She could be a successful lawyer, or a CEO.

Watch her, for example, appearing before the City Council, answering questions about her budget, or at meetings for the various local boards to which she belongs. Watch her bouncing ideas off the Pratt's first-ever director of development, Caroline Senatore, hired to raise private funds to augment the Pratt's virtually static budget. She is a CEO. She answers to a board; her stockholders are the taxpayers. She even referred to her plans for the Pratt as "right-sizing."

Raising money, managing a staff of almost 400, working with a private board of trustees, placating politicians -- hers is an intensely political job. Yet it was a desire to leave behind "politics with a capital P," as Hayden says, that brought her to Baltimore in a strangely public fracas not usually associated with head librarians. "The tale of two cities," she calls it.

Chicago vs. Baltimore

City No. 1 was Chicago, her hometown, a place where she had earned her master's and doctoral degrees in library science and spent almost all her professional life, with the exception of four years as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The system there was bigger than the Pratt, had more books, more branches and a spanking new library, dedicated to the late mayor Harold Washington. But for a year, Hayden had stayed in the No. 2 position there, while city leaders and the library board failed to agree on who should assume the top post.

All Baltimore had was the Pratt, then in a decline feared to be irreversible. But for a scholar like Hayden, the Pratt had an allure no other system could match. All Baltimore brag aside, the Pratt was one of the nation's most famous library systems, helping to inspire Andrew Carnegie's famed building program in the early part of the 20th century.

Baltimore's interest in Hayden seemed to create momentum for her in Chicago. The tug-of-war over Hayden generated almost daily updates in the Chicago newspapers. Even as Mayor Richard Daley's office was issuing press releases claiming it had convinced Hayden to stay, she was en route to Baltimore to accept her new job.

"Carla has always been very private, but I think she really was disturbed by what happened in Chicago," says Margaret Mary Kimmel, a friend and colleague from Hayden's days at the University of Pittsburgh.

"She called me one day and said, 'I can't believe the kind of things that are going on here. It makes me uneasy to go out and get a newspaper for fear someone will come out and ask why are you buying that paper?' It was at that kind of a micro level, and she realized it was really important to keep your private life private. The public library is always looking for an opportunity to make its case in public, but not like that."

Asked about it now, Hayden says dryly: "My grandmother enjoyed it. She never knew a librarian could achieve that level of prominence."

In the end, it really was no contest, Hayden says. For someone steeped in the scholarship of public libraries, "coming to the Pratt was like coming to Mecca."

That Mecca could be improved only made it sweeter.

Restoring the legacy

The Pratt board of trustees are meeting at the Clifton Park branch, essentially one large room, but a gracious place. Built in 1916, it now does double duty as the garage for the Pratt's fleet of bookmobiles.

Until recently, that fleet was one bookmobile, which was in the shop more than it was on the road. The board had authorized money for new vehicles, says Hillman, but the purchase was continually delayed. Now Hayden has not only put the Pratt back on the road, she has done it well ahead of her own self-imposed September deadline.

"It's just a small example of how one person makes the difference," says board chairman Hillman, as he and other board members circle the shiny new white bookmobile and two mini-vans. "Organizations are driven by people. We just lucked out and got the right person."

By implication, Hayden's predecessor, Anna Curry, had ceased to be the right person. A long-time Pratt librarian and a native Baltimorean, Curry was appointed to the director's job in 1981. Initially, people celebrated at finding a director who had come up through the Pratt's ranks. But as money became increasingly tight, Curry floundered, reluctant to make the painful choices faced by urban libraries in the late '80s and early '90s. The board had already approached Hayden and other applicants when Curry was fired in October 1992.

The question was, could the Pratt be revived?

Founded in 1886, the Pratt was one of the country's best-known library systems for much of this century. Famed for its special collections -- from Poe to Mencken to popular songs -- it was the place where many of the country's librarians began their careers.

Wheeler, who oversaw the construction of the main building on Cathedral Street, was considered a true visionary. It was his idea to eliminate the sweeping steps that gave most libraries a sense of grandeur. Instead he wanted to bring the library down to street level, so it was literally more accessible to the public.

But by the time the Pratt celebrated its centennial with much fanfare, its legacy had been badly eroded. Circulation had slumped, even as the Baltimore County library had achieved the highest per capita circulation in the country. The book budget had been slashed -- in part because its overall budget, in constant dollars, was lower than it had been 20 years earlier.

Arriving in July 1993, Hayden began with a clean sweep -- literally. Soon, the once-dingy Central Library sparkled again, and new books began appearing on the kiosks reserved for recent publications, as purchasing procedures were streamlined. Hayden assembled a new management team and pushed for the Pratt to hire a development director. The computerized card catalog, PrattCat, debuted in May 1994, followed by its online service, Sailor, in July.

The budget, although it did not increase, at least had a few bonuses tucked in -- $230,000 to reopen the Govans and Patterson Park branches, as well as an extra $100,000 to buy new books. But this largess would not continue.

The Pratt is technically independent, but ultimately dependent on the City Council and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who administer the city, state and federal funds that make up its $20.7 million budget.

Schmoke routinely lashes the Pratt to the railroad tracks during his annual budget wranglings with the City Council. He did it again this year, threatening a huge cut in its budget if he didn't get the tax increase he wanted.

After Chicago, the routine politics of library funding don't faze Hayden. Sure enough, the mayor backed away from the cuts. "But let me tell you, Carla had a plan if she had to deal with those cuts," says Hillman. "She was prepared."

Hayden's strength, her fans say, is her interest in both small, concrete changes that are often more visible to patrons, and the large, abstract essentials the public finds less than mesmerizing, such as her three-year strategic plan for every facet of the library.

She can be creative, turning budget shortfalls into programs that other systems now want to imitate. When branches were concerned about security, Hayden invited city police officers to use the neighborhood libraries as their field offices, dubbing the program "Coffee for Cops."

Along the way, she has bruised some feelings with her take-charge style. A perfectionist, the plain-spoken Hayden can intimidate those who aren't as driven. After her first year on the job, one unidentified department head told The Sun: "Carla can cut people off at the knees in group situations. She's not a leader yet, she's a boss."

Asked about that criticism today, Hayden says pointedly: "It would be interesting to find out who that person was, and what they would say now. When I came in, I had to take the reins, build another culture."

But nothing she has done will be as daunting as closing branches, especially once citizens know which ones are being targeted -- a tightly kept secret for now.

The branch heresy

The love of the local library branch is unique within the debates over city services, a nostalgic yearning for something thousands of people don't actually use. To listen to people rhapsodize about their neighborhood library is a little like listening to them talk about the days when milk was delivered door to door.

"The milk in the insulated box. You do miss it, because there was something about getting in your bathrobe and going out to the steps to get it," muses James C. Welbourne, who oversees the branches as Hayden's deputy.

"The problem is when there's no more milk to be had . . . the truth is, a lot of our buildings are going to close themselves."

Says the always-candid Charles Robinson, who is retiring as Baltimore County's library director this summer: "They want libraries they can walk to. Why? They don't expect to walk to Home Depot, or the grocery store, or anywhere else. It's a sentimental point of view. They talk about children, and then they dredge up old people."

From Clifton Park to Roland Park, from St. Paul Street to Dundalk Avenue, Baltimore is full of library buildings that are long on charm, short on the modern conveniences, books and technological systems expected of information providers. Roofs leak, air conditioners break down. Making the buildings accessible to the handicapped -- as required by federal law -- is virtually impossible at some of the older branches.

"We've had one branch, which shall remain nameless, which has had water coming in all summer long," Hayden says.

At the same time, the city has lost population, so it becomes difficult to justify maintaining the same number of branches. Baltimore County serves more citizens with just 15 branches. Yet people were outraged when Schmoke suggested closing branches earlier this year.

To speak of closing branches in Baltimore City is heresy. The Pratt has not closed a branch since 1987, when it attempted to shut down five. Public outcry and charges of racist policies forced the city to reconsider, and only three ended up shutting their doors.

Today, the city has 28 branches and the Central Pratt. Still, circulation is higher than it was in 1987 when it had 32 libraries, as is attendance and reference transactions.

"Of course you have to close branches," says Robert E. Greenfield, former executive secretary of the Maryland Library Association, who has worked in both the city and county systems. "It's the only sane thing to do. [But] it's like being against motherhood and apple pie."

Would he advocate closing Branch No. 6 on St. Paul, the one nearest his home and one of the city's oldest and smallest branches? "Well, I think usage is very high there," he says, adding sheepishly, "I guess it's not that much farther to Govans."

When Hayden appeared before a City Council subcommittee for a budget hearing in June, some council members quickly made clear how provincial their concerns were. Can you do something about the paint on the Fells Point branch? Councilman John Cain wanted to know. What about the branches in my neighborhood? asked Councilman Nick D'Adamo. How do they compare to the other branches citywide?

Finally, Jul Owings of Hampden made an impassioned defense of her library branch, built in 1900. It is key to our community, she said breathlessly. Everyone goes there. If it closes, our children will have nowhere to go.

A week after this hearing, The Sun visited the city's north side libraries. It was an overcast, drizzly day, and school was still in session. Most of the libraries had fewer than 10 visitors on the premises at any one time.

At Hampden -- Jul's jewel -- there were no patrons at all.

Beam me up

Last December, board chairman Hillman stood before the Pratt's staff, gathered in the main hall of Central Library for the official launch of the strategic plan -- the blueprint for modernizing the Pratt.

"The board of trustees takes absolutely no responsibility for what is going to happen next," he said. "None of us remembers hiring any of these people. And we certainly did not authorize anything they're going to do."

Hillman was joking. This was the Pratt's annual Christmas party, after all, complete with an ersatz Sonny and Cher crooning a library love song to the tune of "I've Got You, Babe." ("As we cruise into cyberspace/don't forget that books still have their pl-a-a-a-ce.")

Then, as the program recognized employees from throughout the decades, starting with the 1950s, top administrators danced out from behind screens. James C. Welbourne glided across the floor in a pink tuxedo and ruffled shirt, a lone Temptation. As the '60s gave way to the '70s, another administrator did a modified hustle to "Stayin' Alive" -- an appropriate Pratt theme. A man in a Ronald Reagan mask strolled through, prompting a joke about his forgetfulness. "He's forgotten the '80s," someone remarked. "We'd all like to forget the '80s."

Finally, it was time to face the Pratt's future. The theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" played over the sound system, and Carla Hayden stalked out. Not your same old librarian, indeed. Hayden was wearing a "Star Trek" uniform and dark glasses. But instead of letting her hair down, she had encouraged it to spike out even higher than usual.

It was a side of the Pratt director many of her employees had never seen. Good-natured, sure. Pleasant, definitely; always able laugh at herself. But here was evidence that Hayden was willing to let her employees laugh at her.

"I've got the hair for it," she had told several people when the skit was planned. "I might as well do it."

Now as she locked her arms on either side of the lectern, the laughter kept building in a place where no one usually speaks above a whisper. Her arms quivering almost spasmodically, her body weaving, it looked as if Hayden were trying to steer an unwieldy spaceship through the galaxy -- or as if she was single-handedly taking a 110-year-old library system into the 21st century.

A Profile of the Pratt

Number of libraries: Central and 28 branches

Number of books: 2.2 million

Number of cardholders: 225,000

Number of annual visitors: 1.3 million*

Circulation: 1.6 million*

Budget for 1997: $20,705,847

Full-time employees: 397

* Most recent figures available are from 1995.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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