When I was growing up, my parents held reading in high esteem. Our regular trips to the library were events we four kids relished—or feared, if we had to confess to a lost book (a fairly regular occurrence for me).
Still, I do love libraries: the earthy smell of book bindings; the quietude of the stacks; helpful librarians you’re embarrassed to ask for assistance but then are so glad you did; the middle-distance stares of people glancing up from their reading, lost in other worlds as you pass by to find yours.
I especially love suffering those stares at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a gift to the city of Baltimore by Enoch Pratt 127 years ago. A transplant from Massachusetts, 15-year-old Pratt had arrived solo in Baltimore in 1831 with just $150. By the late 19th century, he’d become a wealthy merchant known for no-nonsense fairness and equality.
Libraries back then were scant, poorly stocked, barely maintained, and exclusive to the rich. But Pratt had a different idea, declaring, “My library shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them.”
The library was funded with Pratt’s $1,058,333.33 endowment, creating a perpetual $50,000 annuity. Other than late fees, this was the library’s sole source of income for 22 years, at which point, Baltimore began chipping in.
The library opened in January of 1886, initially offering 28,000 books and issuing 26,000 library cards. One card bears mentioning: In October of that first year, Harry S. Cummings of 935 Eutaw Street was given a card. Cummings was African American—the first to hold a card from the library.
Pratt also forwarded the rights of women by hiring many, noting women were “steadier and more reliable,” although he did relegate them to minor positions and paid them less. The gentry were shocked at such unfeminine enthusiasm for employment. But who else made sense? Even junior employees needed higher education to work at the library.
These two issues eventually merged: In 1951, Amy Winslow became the first female director of the library. Thirty years later, Anna Curry became the first African-American director.
Today, the library is vastly different. The original building on Mulberry Street is gone; the central library on Cathedral Street was built in the 1920s. It’s downright noisy as you walk through the doors into majestically high ceilings and echoing grandeur. So much for the iconic stink-eye of the head librarian.
The Lords of Baltimore gaze down from life-size, museum-quality paintings, while patrons check their email and Facebook pages from computers lining the main hall. You can grab a coffee at the Wi-Fi café to the left. Audiobooks are straight back.
But winding staircases, worn wooden study desks, and alcove window boxes nestled in 10-foot-tall windows painted in gold leaf persist. And people still glance up from their books with that other-world stare when you pass by.
The library sports a sleekly modern expansion wing now, where you’ll find a well-stocked room dedicated to African-American history. Lighted display cases cover the long hallway walls. I peer at 1970s-era Ebony magazines, reminiscing about the Commodores and watching Good Times on TV, not understanding then the social revolution it represented.
Two flights up in the expansion wing is what I consider the very best part of the Enoch Pratt Free Library: the Maryland Room.
Here, you’ll find genealogy, biographies, vertical files filled with news clippings, and a long bank of drawers that looks like an old-fashioned card catalog. It is, in a way. Started in the early 1930s, the alphabetical cards hold minutiae and cross-references to other minutiae—all focused on Maryland. Important info? That’s not important.