When Baltimore's grand library opened on Cathedral Street in 1933, the building's ornate appointments and display windows were evocative of those in the department stores that lined nearby Howard Street. It also featured a street-level entrance and sprawling central hall that beckoned visitors inside.
Unlike most city businesses of that era, the new building echoed benefactor Enoch Pratt's vision that his pioneering lending library should warmly welcome everyone — "rich and poor without distinction of race or color."
Now, as the library undergoes a $114 million renovation to fully transform it for the digital age, its caretakers stress they will safeguard its collection of 1 million books, restore the building's historical features — and ensure that the Pratt remains an inviting and comfortable place for all who enter. Sandra Vicchio, the project's lead architect, hopes the result will be "an inspiring combination of past and future."
But some of the Pratt's most loyal patrons are concerned that the library won't get that balance right. They say the plans put too much focus on meeting rooms and technology, to the detriment of the space that gives patrons a chance to browse shelves and make discoveries.
David Yaffe, a board member of Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, called the renovation an exercise "in disrespect and obliviousness." His concerns have been echoed by Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat.
More than just books
Experts say the Pratt's evolution mirrors that of large urban libraries in New York, Boston and elsewhere, as they recognize that they must be much more than a repository of books.
Urban libraries are also serving as de facto small-business incubators, providing residents access to computers and even offering social workers to help people navigate government services. Some systems are experimenting with their future role — the San Antonio library has an all-digital branch, for example.
"We're shifting from a focus on collections to people and community," said John Carlo Bertot, a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. "You should be able to walk into the Pratt after the renovation and recognize its bones, but also say, 'Wow, this is a great space that allows me to do everything I have to do.'"
The Pratt's renovation, which began in June, is expected to continue for about 31/2 years. Most of the project costs are to update the building by adding a new roof, overhauling the heating and cooling system, retrofitting antique light fixtures and creating an infrastructure for modern technology.
As part of the overhaul, the library will be improving its broadband service — an offering that's become more critical with the ubiquity of smartphones. The Pratt saw nearly 850,000 Wi-Fi sessions during the first six months of the fiscal year, a 36 percent increase over the comparable period last year.
There will be some design and operational changes as well. To accommodate growing digital needs, the renovated Pratt will have a new wing for young adults, complete with a room for teens to build video games and experiment with robotics.
Carla Hayden, the library's chief executive officer, said the Pratt — recognized as being the first library in the U.S. to cater to teens and young adults — wants to give teens freedom to explore their independence even as they're in a safe place staffed by adults.
Throughout the building, roving librarians will serve as guides, carrying scanner-like devices to check out books on the spot. Carts selling baked goods, sandwiches and coffee will be a new addition to the central hall.
The library has already spent nearly $40 million over the past decade to renovate six neighborhood branches around Baltimore.
But the central library is used by residents throughout the city — and the region — for its extensive collections and its charm.
Visiting on a recent afternoon, Jahaira Carranza of East Baltimore said she hopes some things will remain the same after the renovation — especially the magical atmosphere of the children's section, with its ceramic goldfish pond, a favorite destination for her family.
"They just love it here," Carranza said, as her daughters, ages 6 and 12, knelt in front of a wooden bench where they spread out armfuls of books.
Her oldest, Natalia, a rising seventh-grader at McDonogh School, was searching for the titles on her summer reading list. She likes to come to the Cathedral Street library rather than her local branch in Patterson Park in part for the larger selection. "And the librarians are really helpful here," she said.
The children's section will remain where it is now. The goldfish pond will be refurbished, a ceiling mural covered with layers of old paint will be restored and the fireplace where countless kids have sat for story time will be reconditioned.
But lots of changes are planned. Beneath the library are a labyrinth of shelves holding reference and research materials and other items. The musty lower levels, open only to staff, will be repainted and reorganized for the first time in 80 years. The walls will also be sealed to prevent water damage.
Upstairs, the library will function much as it has in the past. Patrons will still be able to browse the shelves, apply for jobs on banks of computers and meet in the central hall for lectures, films and special events.
The hall, filled with natural light from a glass ceiling, will have a new audio-visual system. The library will continue to use the space for large gatherings, as it did when hundreds came for a presentation on atomic energy in 1956 and for a live feed of Nelson Mandela's funeral in 2013.
The bulk of the project's $114 million cost — about $94 million — is coming from the state. The city is contributing about $5 million, and the library has committed to raising $15 million in donations.
Concern for the future
Yaffe is one of the library's fiercest advocates — and critics. At 72, he's a lifelong user and is vocal about his fear that the Pratt is taking a wrong turn.
Yaffe said the Pratt "failed miserably" at soliciting public feedback on its renovation plans. (The staff says several public meetings were held to seek input, and officials spent years testifying before House and Senate committees in Annapolis. Comments on the renovation are still welcome, they say.)
Yaffe worries about the loss of 90,000 books on publicly accessible shelves — nearly 30 percent of the current number. "The renovation plan is a complete exercise in disrespect and obliviousness of the importance that browsing has," said Yaffe.
Carter has also expressed concerns about the issue. The delegate asked the state librarian to investigate, saying in a letter, "I am concerned that this abrupt decrease in publicly available material at Maryland's premier public library facility can be viewed as diminishing the quality of library service that taxpayers deserve and pay for."
Irene Padilla, the assistant state superintendent for libraries, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Carter's letter.
Other critics worry that the renovation will leave certain areas cramped or with insufficient lighting. They also say the library hasn't identified solutions to everyday problems patrons face, such as a lack of parking.
Yaffe said if the Pratt did more to determine how it can better serve the community, it would have higher circulation.
Circulation for the central library last year was about 340,000. That's low compared to the Towson branch of Baltimore County's system, which had a circulation of more than a million items.
Pratt spokesman Roswell Encina says circulation figures aren't a good yardstick for usage because much of the central library's collection includes research materials and historical titles that can't be checked out. Library use is also measured in ways that don't include circulation, he notes, such as reference questions answered by librarians and visitors who come for various reasons but don't check anything out.
The renovation is the largest in the Pratt's history, according to Hayden.
Lighting was updated in the 1950s and mezzanines were built in the 1980s, adding about 20,000 square feet of floor space. An $11 million annex opened in 2003 to house some of the oldest and rarest materials, including an African-American history collection that includes a book by poet Phillis Wheatley published in 1773 and the Benjamin Banneker Almanac from 1796.
The limestone walls have held strong over the years, but the building shows signs of age. Mold has grown in spots and water has damaged some walls and ceilings. The heating and cooling system dates from 1956, with upgrades that leave the temperature inconsistent throughout the 275,000-square-foot building.
Hayden said she feels a deep responsibility to ensure that the Pratt remains as relevant in the next century as the last.
She pointed to the successful evolution of the library and its traditions. For instance, kids used to make a phone call to ask librarians to help research a homework assignment. Today people can use their mobile devices 24 hours a day, seven days a week to submit questions via text, email, online chat or phone call — and get an answer through the library's "Fuzzy Slipper" service.
'I like to read the books!'
Today's patrons include Thaddeus Street, who stopped by the Pratt with his family on a recent weekday afternoon. Street, a local film and theater actor, was looking for books on his craft while his partner, Michelle Rodwell, came to research fashion design.
Their 2-year-old daughter, Aviela Street, proudly declared: "I like to read the books!" while their infant son cooed in a stroller.
Street said he's glad to see the investment in the library, especially at time when focus is needed on supporting city families.
"Educating yourself, I believe, is very important," Street said. "And the library is the perfect place for that."
The Pratt also has played a lasting role in the life of novelist Laura Lippman, who has used it since she was a girl.
Lippman, 56, did research in the library as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and now as an author. She's even set scenes from her books inside its walls, and she supports the library financially by donating her speaking fees.
As long as the Pratt is filled with books, she said, "I'll be happy."
"I trust the people who are currently running the library to be the best stewards of its traditions," Lippman said. "I feel strongly that physical books are still important to people. They are important to me."
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.