Central library to open on Fridays

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This week, the doors to the Enoch Pratt's central library will swing open to the public on a Friday for the first time in nearly nine years - ushering in a return to seven-days-a-week service at the Cathedral Street building and a new sense of optimism among the institution's officials.

To celebrate the occasion, which coincides with International Literacy Day, the library is holding a day of "First Friday" activities, ranging from jazz concerts to book signings to cooking demonstrations.

Pratt officials - who were forced to close the central library one day each week and to shut two branches in the 1990s because of budget problems - see the resumption of Friday hours as the harbinger of a season of positive developments for the city's chronically underfunded library system. They include:

The scheduled opening in November of a space in the central library for children's activities.

The planned groundbreaking, also in November, of a $10 million central library annex, part of a larger program of renovation and expansion of the Depression-era structure.

A $100,000 challenge grant from the France-Merrick Foundation for new or increased donations from individuals.

These developments are in addition to the planned start of construction of an expansion of the Roland Park library next spring and of a southeast regional library in Highlandtown, which has been bogged down over site selection but is tentatively scheduled to open in about three years.

"It's an exciting time," Carla D. Hayden, director of the Pratt, said last week. "We've worked so hard to get to this point. There's a lot of need but a lot of opportunities. The good news is that the Pratt Library is ready to act on and take advantage of the opportunities."

While an infusion of $3 million a year from state government is allowing the resumption of Friday service at the central library and is paying for the bulk of the annex-restoration project, the Pratt's funding continues to lag far behind that of library systems in many similarly sized cities.

With an annual budget of $27 million - 49 percent of which comes from the city, 46 percent from state and federal grants, and the remainder from private and other sources - the Pratt's per capita funding is about $42.

By contrast, among cities that have between 500,000 and 1 million residents, Cleveland leads with per capita funding of about $89, according to a recent survey by the Public Library Association. Other similarly sized cities whose per-capita funding exceeds the Pratt's include Boston ($69), Seattle ($60), Cincinnati ($57) and Washington ($45), according to the organization's 2000 statistical report.

At the same time, the Pratt has been preparing to reopen the central library to the public Fridays for all but the summer months - the system has had to pare hours at a half-dozen of its 26 branches. In all, the system cut 57 hours from its branches, a reduction of about 6 percent.

The Pratt also has had to trim its materials budget for the branches by 20 percent - cuts Hayden acknowledges that patrons may not notice at first.

"They're going to say, 'We can't get the best-seller,'" she said.

But the branch reductions have not diminished the enthusiasm for the resumption of Friday hours at the central library - a feeling that extends beyond the city's borders.

"It's wonderful," said Mary Baykan, director of the Washington County Free Library and past president of the Maryland Library Association. "We're all, statewide, very proud of the Pratt. She's a resource not only for the city of Baltimore, but for the state of Maryland." A $3 million increase in state aid in recognition of the Pratt's role as a State Library Resource Center for other systems - passed by the General Assembly last year for the fiscal year that began July 1 - is making possible the resumption of Friday hours. The money, which is scheduled to increase by another $3 million in three years, also will pay for the state's online public information network, as well as the new annex.

A mid-fiscal year decrease in state funds during the economic slowdown of the early 1990s forced the Pratt Central to close Fridays in December 1991.

Officials chose to close Fridays because it was the slowest day of the week, and they wanted to avoid sweeping cuts in materials and other services. But the closings prompted many library supporters and others to question the city's commitment to literacy and quality-of-life issues at a time when City Hall was pushing the slogan "The City That Reads."

Founded in 1882 with a bequest from the New England-born merchant whose name it bears, the Enoch Pratt Free Library is the repository of nearly 3 million books and documents, with notable special collections on African-American and Maryland history and writer H. L. Mencken. Since 1971, the Pratt's central library has served as the state library resource center, making it a backup source of information for library systems throughout the state.

Hayden, who assumed the library's directorship in 1993, has heard echoes in the building throughout the period of the Friday closings, which she has described as being akin to having the "doors to information and knowledge ... closed."

"Even though it's been over eight years, people are still pulling on that [front door] handle every Friday," Hayden said.

Last Friday morning, the last day of Friday closings at the central, Nigel Assam did just that, walking from his place in Mount Vernon and hoping to sign on to the Internet and read some poetry by Robert Lowell.

So did Shelley Redmond, a Mount Washington resident who came from her title business around the corner to look for a book and said she was unaware the central was closed Fridays because she usually goes to her local branch.

Asked how she felt about the central library's resumption of Friday hours, Friday reopenings, she said: "I'm always happy when libraries open."

When the Pratt got additional state money this year, "the first priority was to make the resources and the people in the (central library) building available seven days a week," Hayden said.

On Nov. 13, the central library plans to open its new a "Children's Garden," an enclosed courtyard that includes amphitheater-style seating. The project, which costs about $1 million, is being funded by private donations and will allow for an expansion of such activities as storytelling, readings by children's authors, puppet shows and other activities, officials say.

Also in November, they hope to break ground on an annex to the central library on Franklin Street that will house the Pratt's African-American and Mencken collections and computer center. The annex, which will add about 15 percent to the central library's space, is part of a $45 million, five-year construction-and-renovation project for the central library funded by the city and the state.

"A lot of things people won't be able to see but they'll be able to feel, like the air conditioning system, which was last updated in 1956," Hayden said.

Pratt officials have pledged to raise $4 million to furnish and equip the annex. They hope the $100,000 challenge grant from the France-Merrick Foundation, which will match new or increased private donations from individuals one-for-one, will help boost the library's fund-raising efforts.

In the most recent fiscal year, the library, which has an endowment of $29 million, raised $1.9 million from private sources, including $61,000 from donors of $1,000 or less. The library is owned by the city but operated as a nonprofit by a private board.

"The Pratt is an important cultural institution. We wanted to do something to build its fund-raising base," said Robert W. Schaefer, the foundation's executive director.

Hayden said the Pratt remains committed to the idea of a handful of regional libraries three to four times the size of branch libraries, a plan that could lead to further branch closings. She said she expects the branch in Highlandtown to be a "good model" for such facilities once the issue of where to put it is resolved.

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