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Pratt to show off its riches

For the first time since being built 70 years ago, Baltimore's main library has gotten a new annex - a $15 million addition that will give the public more access to some of the library's most valued collections, including H.L. Mencken's personal books and papers.

The expansion is significant because the city's library system has been severely cash-strapped in recent years and has had to close several of its facilities. From 1997 to 2001, the Pratt closed one-quarter of its neighborhood branches, going from 28 to 21.

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Carla D. Hayden, the Enoch Pratt Free Library director, gave reporters a tour of the Pratt's new quarters this week, showing off mint-green rooms that will soon be packed with books. The four-story library annex will open Nov. 3, and library officials are upbeat about what it will mean for Baltimore.

"What we'd like to do is get into the 21st century," Hayden said as she walked through the 43,000-square-foot expansion, which faces West Franklin Street. The annex will include places for people to plug in laptop computers and offer a computer lab.

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Amenities have been hard to come by. Hayden has said amid community outcries and lawsuits that she has had little choice but to cut out pieces of the library system because of budget constraints and rising costs. But she said the library addition is an indication of good things to come, including more public access to the library's rich pieces of history.

Several collections will be taken out of cramped storage quarters. Among them is the Mencken collection, which has been stored for decades in the equivalent of a locked broom closet because of a lack of space.

Mencken, a newspaper essayist who was known as the "Sage of Baltimore," left his personal library and other documents to the Pratt, a signature collection slated for the annex's first floor. All Mencken research materials must remain in the library, but the collection will be much more visible, Pratt officials said.

In its more spacious home, the Mencken collection will be arranged so that his writing papers and books can be seen through glass and studied by appointment.

The white limestone annex also will house the Pratt's African-American collection and the Maryland Reading Room on separate floors - an overdue change since the two departments have been crowded on the second floor of the main library.

Mona Rock, a Pratt spokeswoman, said the Eddie and Sylvia Brown African American Collection of 15,000 volumes will have a room of its own.

The most prominent pieces in that collection are an original Benjamin Banneker Almanac, dated 1796 by the astronomer, and a first edition of a book of poems by American poet Phillis Wheatley, published in 1773.

Most significantly for library patrons, a part of the African-American collection will circulate for the first time, Hayden said.

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The collection is in keeping with the Pratt's institutional character, Hayden said. She said she is particularly proud of the fact that the Pratt did not practice racial segregation when many Baltimore institutions - including schools and swimming pools - were divided by black and white.

"It was the only place the races could intermingle," she said. "That's part of the affection for this library."

Attention also was paid to bringing in natural light through the annex's large windows so that the sunset, the sky and parts of the city landscape can be seen through the panes, Hayden said.

"The light is just gorgeous," Hayden said. "Like the original, this building is here to stay."

The Maryland Department - consisting of 19th-century books, maps, postcards, printings and pamphlets - and other parts of the Pratt's special collections will be available on the annex's third floor.

Computer labs will be on the second floor, and the fourth floor will be for staff and mechanical space.

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Wesley Wilson, chief of the Pratt's state library resource center, said the new digital cables are designed for heavy use of the library's information system, Sailor. "This is where Sailor will live," he said, "for statewide access to the Internet."

The state is funding most of the central Pratt's expansion and restoration.

The second phase of the project will start next year and will replace the 1933 main building's plumbing, heating and electrical systems. It also will restore lighting fixtures, furniture, windows and interior murals. The cost for the entire capital project is $58 million, with the city contributing about $5 million and private philanthropy contributing $4 million, Hayden said.


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