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A fabulous return for the Pratt Library


YOUR PALMS TINGLE a little with anticipation when you walk up to the stately Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown. All those shelves full of books, you think. The history, the grandeur. It's all there waiting, yours to take in.

Then you reach out to find the entrance locked.

That's the way it has been for nine years on Fridays in downtown Baltimore. It has been a bitter pill for a place dedicated to opening doors to learning -- and for all those turned away.

That makes this week a joyous one, when the Pratt's central Baltimore branch flings open its doors Friday. Musicians, magicians and storytellers will fill the expansive halls, celebrating the reinstated hours.

Being a seven-day-a-week library again is a success for the Pratt, and for Maryland. While many states have a separate state library, ours does not. Pratt helps fills the void as the "state library resource center." Among other things, this means, for example, if you're in Wicomico County, it's after 9 p.m. and you're writing a paper on waterfowl, you can call the Night Owl telephone reference line at the Pratt in Baltimore and find that fact you need.

The central library's cut in hours, and now their restoration, shows how libraries' fortunes shift with the economic winds. While libraries need constant fertilizing to thrive, they are often beset by threats of pruning when times get tight.

It's a haphazard way to treat one of our state's richest resources.

And today, even with the restored hours, all is not rosy.

Funding for the Pratt still lags behind cities of comparable size. And opening the central library seven days a week forced schedule cuts at some of the Pratt's 26 city branches; material purchases also had to be cut 20 percent.

Nevertheless, the reinstated Friday schedule is the first of several exciting changes on Cathedral Street. In November, the library will open a children's garden and begin work on an annex for the library's African-American and Mencken collections. City, state and private funds will make these projects possible.

It's this kind of public-private teamwork that can restore libraries' luster.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library, founded more than a century ago, remains a symbol around the state of the richness of knowledge, available to all. Keeping the Pratt open and growing is vital to keeping that tradition alive.

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