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The Pratt Wants You To Know: They Are Open, Even If Their Doors Are Closed

Mary Rose Madden

The doors of the Enoch Pratt Free Library System have been closed since the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. But library leaders got creative  with a vibrant online presence.

And now, a day many have been looking forward to is on the calendar. The library branches will offer sidewalk service at eight locations starting June 15. But for the library and those who love visiting, there’s a real cost to changing public access.

Before the pandemic, Dominique Pumphrey says, her mom used to get her exercise by walking a few blocks from her home to the Northwood Branch at Cold Spring Lane and Loch Raven Boulevard several times a week.

"She's an avid reader," Pumphrey says. Her mother's "old school," and "likes to read actual books and not off the kindle."

So, she's been reading the same books over and over again for the last few months.

Sidewalk service - where people check out library materials over the phone and pick them up at a scheduled time - will be a pandemic game-changer for her. 

But not everyone is as "old school" as Pumphrey's mom. In the past few months, thousands have signed up for electronic library cards to get e-books from The Pratt.

Heidi Daniel, the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, says even in these tough economic times, they’ve spent more than two hundred thousand dollars trying to keep the library’s resources flowing to Baltimoreans - adding approximately 5000 e-books to its collection as the pandemic was looming.

Daniel points out that publishers charge significantly more for a copy of an e-book for the public library than they do for the consumer, making them "by far our most costly of our collection."

"For example you may purchase The Institute by Stephen King for $19 and our e-book copy is $99," she says.

Daniel says that would be fine if the library could circulate it where everyone could have access to it at the same time.

"But e-books are treated like physical items in that it’s one user, one copy," she says. "And most publishers have limitations on the number of times that you can circulate it before you have to purchase the license again."

This makes the electronic collection the most costly of their purchases. But it's a necessity for a 21st century library system, especially during COVID-19, Daniel says.

"We understand it’s the direction that libraries need to go in order to keep up with how public is  utilizing resources. For us, it’s an access issue – it may be fine for some people to go and purchase an e-book, for other people that’s a cost barrier."

Before the pandemic, The Pratt, as the system is often called, hosted all kinds of events at its branches every day. Families could play chess with Mr. Dan, go to an author’s discussion, or take a GED class.

But trying to put all this into a virtual environment has been tricky.  While the library system  purchased numerous online platforms like JOBNOW, which offers live resume help, much of what it offers is done over the internet, and that presents a major problem in a city like Baltimore.

"It becomes an equity issue and an access issue when we’re not able to provide those to the public," Daniel says.

She says she recognizes that many in Baltimore don't have access to household internet service or a device other than their smartphone - which makes using these digital services near impossible.

"It’s really brought light to the digital divide," she says.

A May 2020 Abell Foundation report used data from The American Community Survey from 2016 and 2018. It found that Baltimore ranked 29th out of the 33 cities examined for household internet access. 

At the Northwood Branch, Sydney Lemon  - who lives close by - says he often brought his nephew here for homework help.  They were two of the 1.5 million people who visited The Pratt in person in 2019.

"A lot of people was going to this library before this corona," he says. And now, he sees people standing by the library to use the wifi.

The Northwood Branch is one of the eight branches where The Pratt has expanded its wifi to reach the parking lot and sidewalks. 

It’s another makeshift solution libraries have used during the pandemic as they try to figure out how to reach all their customers until they can open their doors.  

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.