Just a short Amtrak ride from DC, I got a chance to see this fascinating city at the end of March and to visit the grand Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) .
Director of Communications Meghan McCorkell had emailed they were undergoing their very first major renovation to the tune of $115 million, so much of the library was closed off. But the building is so enormous, alternative accommodations are easily found for all sections and the jobs, public computing and reading areas hummed with energy.
The scaffolding shrouded door belied a soaring marble lobby. A guard greeted us from a marvelous structure resembling an overgrown glass baptismal font-cum-bird cage.
Once finished in 2019, they will have expanded the Children’s, training, technology, conference and public spaces, added multi-purpose creative areas, a designated Job/Career Center and a YA wing, and brought in cutting edge equipment. The Central Hall and historical features will be refinished and HVAC etc. modernized too.
But for now we negotiate a maze of traffic cones, tarps and caution tape to reach the elevators…
…to the third floor and a corridor that’s a study in contrast to the one we just left.
Gleaming surfaces and glowing trim lit by soft light from ship’s wheel lamps lead to vistas of Benjamin Latrobe’s Baltimore Basilica (the first catholic cathedral in the US) from Microfilm and Periodicals.
Up here, Baltimore Cash helps people do taxes and plan finances and there are ample closets for storage (not including the three staff only sub levels). Everyone is welcoming and eager to assist.
And a plethora of information is available from the website which features hot new titles, regular podcasts on subjects like Activist Entrepreneurs, Budgeting Basics and “Writers LIVE”, and promotions for Hoopla free streaming movies, Flipster magazines, the Annual Gala, drop in crafts, Zumba, legal aid clinics and the Fairy Tale Festival. Video updates keep you apprised of the restoration’s progress, and you can email a question or connect to virtual reference, suggest a purchase or figure out how much EPFL materials and activities save you annually. Search databases running the gamut from auto repair to Digital Maryland (for scanned MD artwork, photos, old maps and manuscripts) or download ebooks and eaudiobooks.
A link for under 18’s lets them volunteer for the Community Youth Corps Program (there’s one for adults also). Or make a donation (I like the gentle, if somewhat ghoulish, hint to remember them in your will or as a life insurance beneficiary). EPFL’s numerous supporters include Friends, the Pratt Society and the Pratt Contemporaries (for young professionals). The latter two both have exclusive annual celebrations benefiting the library.
Due to the transitory nature of things, portable self check and easily moved free standing wire racks of recent acquisitions dot the premises.
The library is obviously an integral part of Baltimore. They solicit outside input via online feedback forms and the Pratt Advisory Council comprised of community representatives. A social worker moves around the system helping people with benefits, homelessness, addiction, immigration, health and safety issues.
After walking through a busy room packed with workstations, I noticed a slew of DVDs presented by category – Urban Cinema, Asian Action (no subtitles!), new Anime, an extensive foreign selection, STEAM (I’d heard of STEM, but this adds “art” to the science, technology, engineering and math videos) etc.
In the business area, Librarian I Sreedevi was camera shy but told me they schedule individual appointments for patrons seeking work so your own personal librarian can help you search for vacancies, write resumes, complete applications, discover apprenticeships and training courses or point out resources like test guides or binders full of available jobs kept current by Workforce Librarian Jeanne Lauber. There’s a grants librarian who can help write proposals too.
My jaw dropped at the gorgeous intricacies of the architecture every time I looked up. Megan was right on target when she wrote that the newly restored ceilings are breathtaking.
Even the water fountains, heating grates, clocks and light panels are elegant and furnishings and fixtures complement the magnificence of the edifice. The wrought iron, brass and marble stairwells, benches and wainscoting are stunning as is the parquet floor, built in book shelves and a fireplace of a big enclosure perfect for classy affairs.
The roots of this venerable institution go back to 1882 and a million dollar endowment from Enoch Pratt for a place where anyone, be they rich or poor, black, white, purple or green, could borrow books. Four years later, two locations opened to the citizens and by 1888, EPFL had five branches. Eight years after inception, in 1894, it had the third largest collection and circulation of public libraries in America. In the early twentieth century, a half a million dollars from Andrew Carnegie allowed them to construct numerous facilities and as always they led by example – providing services specifically for kids in ’27, then for young adults in 1932 and in 1949 lending films.
Now the library lends laptops for in-house use, has wifi and each day teaches a few computer classes for diverse audiences from homeschoolers to seniors on a variety of topics at five of their locales. EPLF has wheelchair accessible stations and many have assistive technology. Besides Spanish, they offer fiction in over thirty languages and checkout e-book readers.
System wide, adults can join in line dancing or Jamercise, make pillows and kites, listen to jazz concerts, nutrition lectures and tips for home sellers, or come for mock employment interviews, veterans meet up groups, art exhibits and bingo. Constructive criticism from the Writer’s Exchange hones authors’ skills or just relax at book “speed dating” (discussions).
Teens attend movies, video game or card nights or Drone Flight School, get washable tattoos, walk in tutoring or Homework Help online, or learn about 3D printing, coding, Animania and Guerilla Art. The amount of programs in just one month is staggering – and tempting.
A large variety of Manga and graphic novels are in a spot for adolescents, but lots more is stowed away. However, if you want something that isn’t on the shelf, someone will immediately run and get it for you as they’ve always done (how nice to have space for all those beloved, yet neglected, tomes).
Plaques by the entrance to the temporary quarters for Youth list Newbery and Caldecott winners.
The inside is cavernous and I was wowed by its truly amazing ceilings. This is where the new, state-of-the-art Teen Wing will be housed, but these days, miniaturized sturdy dark wood stools and tables are the main decor. On primary colored carts, picture books, baskets of plastic trucks and dinosaurs, toys and soft blocks create a diversion while youngsters await storytime.
Out the windows lining one side, a red brick church against a vivid azure sky dominates the landscape. Favorites here are displayed on cube pyramids and a crepe paper ocean motif adorns the case of Reef to Read titles on marine animals that those in fifth grade and below read to win valuable tickets to see actual sea creatures at the nearby National Aquarium.
EPFL events for tots include all sorts of storytimes, family films, building balloon cars, Zumbini, drawbots, Jenga, Quiz Bowl, Slimy Wednesdays and black light Twister. A 24 hour anytime story is just a phone call away.
On the ground level in the sleek Carla D. Hayden Wing, I admired the array of drawings from illustrator Floyd Cooper as I headed along a hallway flanked by well lit vitrines. Passing the Maryland Room and its historical and genealogical materials (the State Library Resource Center and government documents are also here) I came to the African American Department…
…where vibrant works of art anchor either end of the stylish and quiet chamber.
The Mencken Room is another sparkling gem and EPFL publishes Menckeniana Magazine a journal about H. L. Mencken as well as the Pages From The Pratt newsletter for donors and Friends and Compass, has news and happenings for users.
The library has a Twitter account, blog, RSS feeds and a Facebook page with great shots of toddlers proudly holding newly fashioned lanterns or prized books and employees at outreach booths at local fairs and rallies. Rapt audiences watch a drummer or hear from revered guests. Banners announce poetry contests, booksales and Kwanzaa gatherings or give shout outs to the police, sponsors and MLK. Short reports, customer reviews, and positive quotations round out the postings.
EPFL has a total of 21 branches plus a regional information center holding 10,000 items on economic development, environmental issues, demographics and urban planning. A bookmobile, early literacy Book Buggy for day care and pediatric health clinics, and a travelling Job RV with computers and specially trained staff supplement services.
I think Enoch Pratt Free Library has thought of just about everything it can possibly do to improve the lives of residents. What a fabulous place!