"HAVE YOU NOTICED anything about your library?" Karen Banfield Evans asked a class of second-graders one morning last week.
"It's sort of empty," came the answer from a 7-year-old sitting amid stacks of empty shelving in the bright, spanking-new library of Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.
You couldn't help noticing. Cross Country has a nice new library but little to put in it. While the school was being refurbished over the past three years, the students and library collection were housed at nearby Pimlico Middle School. The students returned this year but not the books. First they were flooded, then finished off by termites.
Call it an act of God, or of stupidity. Perhaps only in Baltimore could an entire library be eaten by termites. But how they lost their books is of little concern to Cross Country students, some of whom have been without a school library for three years.
Evans, a community leader and foundation director, was at Cross Country on Thursday to announce a drive to collect books and raise funds for four school libraries embraced by the Northwest School-Community Partnership. She launched the drive with a $10,000 check from the Will Smith Foundation, which she heads.
If Cross Country has a disaster on its hands, the other three schools that will share in the drive -- Northwestern High School and Fallstaff and Pimlico middle schools -- suffer the deprivations of all city school libraries.
The libraries have been neglected for years while the system struggles "to meet so many other needs," as Evans put it. "If you look at the library books, they're so outdated and sparse that we thought a book drive would be a good way to get the community involved."
Things at Cross Country could be worse. Librarian Treva Bergeron has scrounged about 3,000 volumes from various sources, including generous neighbors, and they'll be on those empty shelves as soon as she catalogs them. "But a library this size needs a minimum of 12,000 volumes," she said.
Scavenging is the skill most in demand among city school librarians. For example, Bergeron got down on her hands and knees in the discard area of the Enoch Pratt's central library and came away with four boxes of books.
At Northwestern High School, librarian Bev Hall keeps a sharp eye for "anything free and educational."
Said Hall, "We've gotten very good at asking a question so that the only answer is free rather than that it costs you 'X' amount."
Hall has reorganized the Northwestern library, discarding a "fair amount of books that were so dated they weren't appropriate." Still, she said, the average date of publication for books in her library is the mid-1970s. In a school of 1,400 students, many of whom have no computers at home, Hall's library has two. She hopes to be connected to the Internet this fall.
State standards written more than 20 years ago call for 20 library "items" for each pupil in an elementary school. Three of 123 city elementaries meet the standard, said Michael Pitroff, director of technology and media services.
Staffing is another chronic problem for city school libraries. For years, trained librarians have been retiring or leaving for better jobs elsewhere. Only 16 of 123 elementary schools have full-time librarians, while 43 have part-time librarians one, two or three days a week. The rest make do, assigning library duties to teachers, volunteers or aides.
This means that 64 elementary libraries are never staffed by certified librarians. Pitroff pointed out that library programs are mandatory, so schools are pressed to be inventive. "I'm comfortable when it's a teacher," Pitroff said, "but I'm uncomfortable when it's a parent volunteer, say, or an aide."
There is some hope in a General Assembly bill enacted this year that grants the city school system's libraries $380,000 a year for four years. But a string is attached. The city has to match the sum to get it. So far, Pitroff said, that hasn't happened.
Maybe the city should look harder for the sake of students such as Mindy Spratley, 17. A shy 17-year-old junior at Northwestern, she was in the library during a lunch hour one day last week. She goes there most days, she said, usually to study, but sometimes it's "just to read for pleasure."
Donations can be made to Book Fund/Cross Country Elementary School Foundation, P.O. Box 32007, Baltimore 21282-2007. The four schools also are looking for "gently used" children's books and used magazines.
Pub Date: 6/07/98