Baltimore: The City That (Sometimes) Reads

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Remember that city slogan that no one likes to talk about anymore? “The City That Reads,” introduced in 1987 by then-mayor Kurt Schmoke, was, as the Utne Reader puts it, “well-intentioned but immediately mockable.” Part of the problem is that Baltimore doesn’t actually seem to be all that jazzed about books. Last year, Seattle residents checked out 18.7 books per resident. In Baltimore? Two.

But new research shows that our apparent aversion to libraries might be changing, in part thanks to the recession. (See? There’s a silver lining to every economic disaster.) Baltimore’s library use rose a whopping 25 percent from 2005 to 2011 — that’s more than any other city in the study except Detroit. However, during that same period, circulation declined by 9 percent, possibly indicating that library visitors were more drawn to the free computers than the free books. Should book lovers be dismayed?

Not necessarily. For one, the promise of free computers encourages people to come to the library. For another, it’s actually a good match of needs and resources. As one of the study’s authors notes, “the urban libraries that have shown the biggest growth in usage tend to be the ones that have been the most aggressive in adapting to the needs of their populations.” That means computers, yes, but also branches in low-income neighborhoods, weekend hours, and spaces specifically for teenagers. The Enoch Pratt Free Library system has done a decent job of this, though there’s always room for improvement.

So, what do you think? Should Baltimore’s libraries clear out space for more computers? What should the libraries of the future look like?

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