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Kate Coplan, designed Pratt window displays


Kate M. Coplan, who entertained and informed generations of Baltimoreans with her imaginative window displays at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, died Monday at Sinai Hospital after a stroke. She was 91.

A voracious reader since childhood, Miss Coplan became an internationally recognized expert in the craft of displaying books, authors and ideas with eye-catching exhibits filling the Pratt's 12 Cathedral Street windows.

Library officials from Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Norway and other countries came to Baltimore to interview her. The State Department sent people here to learn her techniques for use in U.S. exhibits abroad.

Her windows were filled with new books by local authors, historical tableaux and, when the occasion called for it, living plants and animals -- including a tarantula that was part of a display of books about spiders.

"Careful carelessness," she said, was her formula for well-arranged displays that exceeded 10,000 window arrangements before she retired in 1963 as chief of exhibits and publicity.

In all, her work was a daily labor of enthusiasm aimed at luring passers-by into "this noble institution," as she put it, to sample its treasury of printed words.

One of her own books about her craft, "Effective Library Displays" was published in 1958 and was the first definitive work on the subject. The volume went through three printings and became a standard reference work in university library courses.

A local reviewer wrote:

"With Kate's knowledge, experience and artistry, the book should be greeted by librarians the way a volume on switch-hitting by Mickey Mantle would be welcomed by aspiring sluggers."

Among her friends were H. L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Christopher Morley and F. Van Wyck Mason, who once asked her: "Are you sure your mother wasn't bitten by a bookworm?"

Miss Coplan's forte stemmed not only from her broad acquaintance with literature but also from her intimate knowledge of her hometown and her instinctive ability as a publicist to distinguish between nonsense and news.

"If you are in Baltimore," Gerald W. Johnson, the author and critic, observed on another occasion, "and you wish to know what is going on in the city other than accidents, fires, crimes and equally predictable sensations, you have only to take a stroll of one city block between Franklin and Mulberry [the Pratt's Cathedral Street location]."

Miss Coplan was born in Baltimore on Dec. 25, 1901, one of six daughters and two sons of Max and Sarah Hermon Coplan, Lithuanian immigrants.

Growing up in an area near Monument and Aisquith streets, she regularly read a book a day, often sitting on her front steps at night reading by the light from a nearby streetlight.

She was educated in the Baltimore public schools, graduating in 1919 from Eastern High School, where she earned a gold medal for scholarship.

Her penchant for reading steered her toward the central Pratt, where she was hired in 1924 at a salary of $65 a month. Her job was scurrying through the library stacks to find books patrons wanted.

Good fortune came Miss Coplan's way two years later when Joseph L. Wheeler became the Pratt's director.

"Within a few months of taking over, I sent a memo around the staff calling for publicity ideas, hoping to find someone to whom this part of the work could be assigned," Dr. Wheeler recalled years later. "Next morning, there were two good suggestions on my desk from 'K. C.' . . . and she began her part-time career on exhibits, later taking on the preparation of news stories."

Miss Coplan's part-time job eventually became full time and, before she retired, she had a staff of five assisting her.

Her first exhibit in the windows of the central building, which opened in 1933, was about the work of Galileo, including a portrait of the Italian scientist and a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

"I forget where she wrangled this, or the portrait of Galileo, but she could always fish out of the cooperative community whatever was to the point of her exhibits," Dr. Wheeler said.

Miss Coplan, who also wrote a weekly column on library news and book notes for The Sun from 1927 to 1943, was repeatedly honored for her work with awards and citations from such organizations as the American Library Association, the Freedom Foundation, the Business and Professional Women's Club of Baltimore and the Baltimore Chapter of Hadassah.

At the time of her retirement in 1963, she said: "I love the library and all the contacts. All my life, people have been kinder to me than I deserve."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Sol Levinson & Bros., 6010 Reisterstown Road.

Miss Coplan is survived by four nieces, Joan D. Merritt, Sara Herbst and Jeanette Freeman, all of the Baltimore area, and Fay Greenfield of Las Vegas; and two nephews, Howard Coplan of Los Angeles and Bernard Streett of Annapolis.

The family suggested memorial donations to the Pratt Library, the Jewish Historical Society or Beth El Congregation.

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