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New Southeast branch symbolic of 'Year of the Pratt'

The Baltimore Sun

There were still books to be put on the shelves and computers to be hooked up.

But there was more than enough to engender enthusiasm among those who came out Tuesday night for a community preview of the city's new Southeast Anchor Library, from the gleaming brick-and-glass exterior, to the separate teen and children's departments with story and study rooms to spaces set aside for a Spanish collection and computer classes.

"The best possible replacement" for a storefront library down the street, the Rev. Luigi Esposito said, "not only because of the building, but because of what the building offers."

"It fits into the changing world," said Esposito, pastor of Our Lady of Pompei Roman Catholic Church, who has been in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. "We have an increasing number of young people and Latinos who can't afford to buy books and computers. We needed it. I'm glad we have it."

In the heart of Highlandtown on the site of a demolished movie house, the building will open to the public May 14.

As the Enoch Pratt Free Library's first newly built library in 35 years, it offers hope that the $16 million investment, mostly in public money, will help the sometimes-struggling area capture some of the prosperity so apparent in Canton and Fells Point to its south and east.

But mostly, it represents a change in fortunes for the Pratt, which over the past decade was forced by budget problems to close seven neighborhood libraries, a quarter of its branches.

"Instead of closing libraries, we're opening them," said Carla D. Hayden, the Pratt's executive director since 1993.

Though the Southeast branch is the most substantial symbol of the library's turnaround, it's not the only one.

In late summer, the new Orleans Street Library in East Baltimore is slated to open, replacing the Broadway branch as part of a land swap with the Johns Hopkins medical complex, which is paying for the construction.

Then, in the fall, an expanded and renovated Roland Park branch in North Baltimore is scheduled to reopen, with much of the $4 million cost raised by the community.

Less extensive but nonetheless important improvements such as roofs and windows are being made on a successive basis to other branches, funded by an anonymous $1 million donation and city capital funds.

The new and refurbished buildings are in addition to a spiffed-up Web site and a new bookmobile with wireless access.

No wonder library officials have dubbed 2007 "The Year of the Pratt."

Not even the library's most ardent supporters were using that phrase in 2001. That's when five of 26 branches were closed, most in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Two other branches closed in 1997.

Library officials and Mayor Martin O'Malley were castigated then from the chambers of the City Council to the streets of Park Heights. The place that once promoted itself as "the city that reads" was becoming known as the city that closes libraries.

"That experience was difficult for everyone - the staff, the communities," Hayden said.

But there was an upside, too. "What it did was bring attention to the fact that the library needed help. It helped galvanize support."

As the city's financial picture improved, so did the Pratt's funding. This year, the Pratt's budget is $41.3 million, an increase of about 50 percent from the budget six years ago. About 20 percent of its money comes from gifts and grants, compared with less than 5 percent a few years ago.

Last year, nearly 1.5 million people came through the Pratt's doors, about two-thirds at the branches and one-third at the Central Library downtown. The library, which also serves as the State Library Resource Center, counted nearly 150,000 daily visitors to its Web pages.

In a sense, the library's turnaround began in 2003, with the opening of a four-story annex to the Central Library, which is scheduled for a multimillion-dollar makeover beginning in 2010. Groundbreaking for the Southeast Anchor, which is double the size of any other branch, took place in 2005.

It's easy to concentrate on some of the new branch's fancier elements: the self-checkout station, the drive-through window, the outdoor reading garden. But its most impressive feature might be its hours: It will be open three weeknights until 8 p.m., and from October through May, it will be open every day, the system's first seven-day-a week branch.

In that way, it will mirror the schedule of the Central Library and contrast with the hours of the other branches, many of which are open five days a week.

Officials estimate that to keep all branches open six days and at least two nights would cost an additional $1.2 million.

"We would love to be able to add more hours in the branches," said Hayden. "If we could be open until 9 p.m., if we could have four evenings a week, if we could have hours on Sundays for some of the larger branches - that's the No. 1 thing on the wish list."

And something that would take a turnaround to the next level.


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