Libraries in the cyber age; Mission: Pratt Library continues to carry out the mission of its founder during an age of changing technology.


TODAY, LIBRARIES around the country begin the annual celebration of National Library Week.

"Read, Learn, Connect @ the Library," the theme for the week, describes the contemporary public library, a place filled with books for enjoyment and research, programs for all ages, and free access to a vast array of electronic resources.

Libraries continue to provide opportunities for lifelong learning and connect people with ideas, information, and each other. The services and legacy of the Pratt library exemplify how libraries can support literate, productive and informed communities.

In 1882, Enoch Pratt, a wealthy Baltimore merchant, asked a prominent citizen what he considered the greatest need of the city. When the gentleman hesitated, Pratt answered his own question: "I'll tell you -- a free circulating public library, open to all citizens regardless of property or color."

Pratt acted on this need, building a central library and branches in four quarters of the city, the first urban library system in the country. Although the Enoch Pratt Free Library has grown and evolved over the years the commitment to Pratt's vision remains. The Pratt library is still a resource for all city residents, the place where toddlers discover the world of books at preschool story hours, where students find homework help after school, where adults meet to discuss books or poetry, or job seekers can learn how to write resumes.

Public libraries have traditionally been the "people's university," providing resources for free lifelong learning. Today, in the digital age, our mission is the same, with more tools, in different formats, to meet the public demands for accurate and timely information on a variety of subjects. One of the most important new services that public libraries provide is a connection to the world via online resources.

Recent studies and surveys emphasize the critical role public libraries play in making information technology accessible to all. The Pratt library is helping to bridge the "digital divide" in Baltimore by providing universal access to the Internet and free computer classes at training centers around the city.

At the largest center, in the Broadway branch library, staff and volunteers train more than 400 students a month. Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have helped fund these computer training centers and have paid for additional computers and printers for branch libraries. In the central library and the branches are more than 400 networked personal computers with laser printers, software for all ages, and more than 1,500 online databases from which to choose. For many city residents without a home computer, access at school or business, the library terminals are their only access point to the Internet and electronic communication.

Communities around the country are reinvesting in their public libraries, and this city and state are no exception.

In last year's legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill which provides for additional per capita funding for the Central Library/State Library Resource Center. The increased funding will be used, in part, to reopen the central library on Fridays beginning Sept. 8 and to continue operation of Sailor, the statewide electronic information service.

A privately funded major expansion and renovation of the Children's Room and Garden at the central library also is under way, with a grand opening also scheduled for this fall. The garden area of this beloved childhood space will house a performance theater and multimedia programming space that will accommodate 100 children. The renovation and expansion project for the rest of the State Library Resource Center/Central Library is in the final planning phase, with completion expected in 2003. Financed with state, city, and private funds, this project will increase public service areas and enhance one of downtown Baltimore's most historic buildings and architectural treasures.

The Pratt library is one of five public libraries in the nation selected by Libraries for the Future to implement the Family Place project, a major initiative designed to strengthen library services for children from birth to three and their families. Family Place features a series of parent-child workshops with educational and creative activities and childcare information from community resource professionals. Piloted at the Brooklyn branch library in 1998, the project has been extended to branches in other parts of the city and joins many long-standing library programs that have inspired a lifelong love of reading and learning for generations of children.

And so, as National Library Week begins, we should remember that libraries still support a community of readers by promoting literacy at an early age, special programs and services for youth, and extensive collections of reading materials for all for learning and enjoyment. Most importantly, libraries can help save lives in the long term and continue to be one of the best assets in enhancing a nation's quality of life. Read, learn and connect at your library.

Carla Hayden is the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

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