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Where a child learned the joy of turning a page Lessons: Neighborhood libraries are, as Russell Baker has said, 'a little cathedral ... to the printed word.'


I WAS INTO a good book Tuesday night when the ringing phone disturbed the quiet of a December evening. The caller summoned me to a meeting the next night, down the street at the former Pratt Library branch that had been closed a year before.

The next day turned soggy; there was rain outside, but the building was full of people and it was warm, thanks to some trusty clanking radiator pipes.

I looked around at the old green shelves so chalky you might think the painter had mixed a stomach antacid into his pigments. It was a familiar, comforting and reassuring room, old Branch Six, a kind of Victorian book cabinet where I learned there was more to reading than a first-grade textbook.

All of a sudden, it was announced that $600,000 was in hand to renovate and reopen the building. There was a list of volunteers to staff the place. The local roofer had already been there and replaced strips of gleaming copper along the complicated folds in the 1896 building's roof.

I heard that its textured slates would be restored. The garden in the back would become a memorial place to Enoch Pratt. Long blocked-up cellar windows would be reopened; in fact, the marvelous brick cellar (always off limits and, I supposed, full of coal) would become a learning center.

The day proved to be an early Christmas present, thanks to the Abell Foundation, the state of Maryland, the Renewal Foundation, T. Rowe Price, the Mercantile Bank and others, including one anonymous donor who came with $50,000 on the sly.

A prospectus stated: "The Village Library would occupy the spectacular main floor of the restored building and would retain the traditional characteristics of a neighborhood library -- a quiet place packed with books where children and adults can experience the joy of learning that begins by turning the page."

Here was a room where I'd had that self-same experience -- the place where my mother brought me to learn what it was like to turn the page.

I can remember that I was dazzled by the shelves of books, the lines of them in plastic jackets. A kindly librarian pulled one off the shelf and said, "This is for you." And I was hooked.

I learned two lessons this week.

One was that children are initiated in the pleasure of reading at a branch neighborhood library. No wonder residents go ballistic when library systems want to close these places. No wonder in the recent Baltimore ballot questions, the city Pratt library loan got more yes votes than any other project -- including a police loan.

One neighbor, Robert Sherman, even suggested that computer hookups in the future might make large regional libraries obsolete, but that the little neighborhood libraries, the ones that truly introduce 6- and 7-year-olds to reading, will never be outmoded by a computer. I thought to myself, he could be right.

The other lesson was one of hope, of believing that a better way exists when things seemingly turn rotten.

It's been more than a year now that the Pratt Library trustees ordered the branch closed. Neighborhood activists lost that fight, but regrouped and sought a better way on their own. They saw potential in the old library's cellar. They saw refinished floors and opened windows. They saw gardens where there was browned grass and weeds. They saw children learning the pleasures of turning the page.

And so did other Baltimoreans, the ones who said yes, we believe in the same things.

I realize this is only one little library building, a place that the columnist Russell Baker described as "a whimsical little cathedral, as it were, to the printed word."

It was here, he added, that he "passed some of the sweetest hours of my childhood."

Me too.

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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