Baltimore's iconic Pratt Library is getting a 100 million dollar makeover, but where are all of the books going?

City Paper

In the great wainscotted conference room on the second floor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Dr. Carla Hayden, the library’s longtime director, apologizes for her casual dress, declines to be photographed, and launches into a history of her library, which became something of a national icon.

The building was completed in 1933 and was designed to look like a department store. This was an innovation on the previous “temple of learning” theme that featured big, sweeping stairways. The Pratt library, by contrast, was all on one level, making it accessible to everyone, and featured wide aisles, broad, open areas, and display windows very much like those found on Howard Street’s best stores.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library became a model for other libraries, including buildings in Toledo, Ohio and Rochester, New York that are “almost exact replicas,” Hayden says, spreading out an array of books of plans and laws that have got the library, which occupies the entire block at the southwest corner of Franklin and Cathedral streets, to the verge of a historic, $96 million renovation.

But “the biggest thing is that the project is finally underway,” Hayden says. “When I got here in 1993, the first thing I had to do was answer the questions that the state legislature had submitted [about the project] in 1988. So it’s been a long road.”

The new library will have scads more technology, new and better meeting rooms, and a lot of improved workspace for the men and women who, mostly out of sight, make the place go.

One thing the Pratt will not have more of after the refit is shelf space. The library’s upper floors will see an overall reduction of more than 6,500 linear feet of shelving, Hayden revealed in an email to activist David Yaffe last month. Five years ago the library had nearly 34,000 feet of shelving for books and other materials. After the refit, which is projected to take about four years, the upstairs shelves will total 27,105 linear feet.

Figuring an inch per volume, the shelf reduction could mean about 80,000 fewer books in the parts of the library that the public has direct access to.

Yaffe worries about making kids cogs rather than free thinkers. He worries that a place for learning and discovery—both accidental and deliberate—is being watered down to fit modern notions of collaborative space and (non) collaborative computer terminals—the things that seem to be taking the place of the books and shelves in the new plan.

“Such proposals seem to ill conceal a desperation, in certain professional U.S.A. library circles, that with digital information ‘displacing’ books, librarians must cast about wildly for some function for themselves and for their buildings,” Yaffe wrote last week in an email to friends and the media.

Yaffe, a longtime board member of Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a nonprofit formed in the 1970s to bolster the library’s mission, has also been one of the library management’s harshest critics. A decade ago he supported a lawsuit filed by a community group to stop planned branch closings. Facing ouster from the Friends board, he then coordinated with the group—Baltimore’s branch of ACORN—to take over the board of Friends of the Enoch Pratt.

Hayden grimaces and literally puts her head in her hands when Yaffe’s name is mentioned. “A shelf by itself is not an indicator of much,” she says, “beyond the capacity to hold a certain number of items. And this is becoming less relevant in the electronic age.”

“We have 38 linear miles of shelving that physically holds up the building,” Hayden says. She asks Sandra Vicchio, an architect who has worked on the plan for the library for 20 years, to hold up a rendering that indicates the basement levels. These “closed stacks”—meaning library visitors cannot browse them—were packed down there when the original builders eliminated beams, necessitating many columns to hold up the structure. They’re not going anywhere, she says, and all of the books moving out of the public areas will still be available upon request.

Counting shelf space, as Yaffe does, “you’re making an assumption that everything on the shelf is useful and is to be put out,” Hayden says.

So the shelving disagreement comes down to priorities. Yaffe and people who think like he does like a cluttered, stuffed library shelf with lots of chances for the inquiring patron to stumble upon something. Hayden—and a lot of library professionals—are much more keen to put out best-sellers and keep those back catalogues, well, in the back somewhere.

The reduction in topside shelf space will mean more room for people, she says, and for what people come to the library to do.  

Which is use the computers.

“San Antonio just opened a library with no shelving, and it’s all electronic,” Hayden says. “Yes, that’s a trend in libraries.”

But Yaffe’s criticism goes beyond the concern with books versus meeting rooms. For years he has said the Pratt does not do enough outreach into the communities—and that its national statistics on library use prove that.

Citing the “Public Library Data Service Statistical Report for 2011,” Yaffe says Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Birmingham, Alabama—cities he sees as similar to Baltimore in size and/or demographics—have library systems that reach and serve many more people than does Baltimore’s. Libraries in those cities are open longer hours, have more books and other materials per capita, and lend at higher rates than Baltimore, Yaffe says.

Only 17 percent of Baltimoreans have a library card, for instance, while the equivalent figure in St. Louis is 22 percent. In Milwaukee it’s 70 percent and in Birmingham, 76 percent, Yaffe says. “The average Baltimore City resident goes to a Pratt library 3.16 times a year.  Average Milwaukee residents visit city libraries 3.46 times, in Gary 6.04 times, in St. Louis 6.91 times, and in Birmingham 11.59 times.  Look what can be done in library service!”

Hayden says the Pratt cannot be compared to most other libraries because, as a state library, its funding and mission are different enough to make those comparisons invalid. “There are only four libraries in the country that are like us,” she says, ticking off Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Colorado. The Maryland system allows anyone in the state who has a library card from their county library to borrow a book from the Pratt, she says, and the book will be trucked to them by a Pratt staff member to any of 102 locations around the state. “We run a thing in the back of our library that looks like UPS,” Hayden says.

And, Hayden says, the Pratt has long functioned as almost an arm of the city’s social service network. Librarians fill in when people need help signing up for a new health care plan or subsidized housing, as happened this fall. “That’s why I always get a little passionate about focusing on a single aspect that is not even understood,” Hayden says. “Focusing on a shelf.”

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