To be 7 and free in library is heaven

The Baltimore Sun

They watched the building going up, and then the shelves filling up with books. But it wasn't until yesterday that Dara Davis was able to answer her book-loving son's question -- "Are you taking us to the library today?" -- with a long awaited, "Yes."

The newest branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library opened at noon yesterday on Orleans Street, and not a moment too soon for 7-year-old Khalil Davis. He's been known to go to a library, check out five books and return later in the day because he's already finished them.

And that challenge he was given in camp, to read 100 books over the summer?

"I read 131," he says, indulging in a bookworm's version of trash-talking.

"Reading is my passion," he says blithely, before taking off to rifle through the newly stocked shelves.

Ah, to be 7 again and let loose in a library on a summer day.

Remember imagining you could read anything -- or everything -- on those shelves. There's something about libraries, with their endless rows and infinite possibilities, that can turn a reader into a serial reader. I remember finishing Little Women and discovering, oh joy, there was also a Little Men (not as good) and a Jo's Boys (even worse) -- and going back and re-reading the original to reassure myself of its superiority. Much later, I discovered an Anne Tyler novel in a library, and obsessively and exclusively read her for an entire summer, until I'd caught up with everything she'd written up to that point.

Somewhere along the way, I began buying rather than borrowing books, but I think I was better read back in my library days -- something about having to get a book back by the due date got me turning the pages, rather than letting them stack up by my bedside, unread, as I do now.

And now, in an age of information overload, my reading has reverted to homework, year-round and without a summer break -- newspapers, magazines, Web sites, mostly for my reality-based job. I miss libraries, and unfocused reading.

"Most of the reading I do now is for classes I'm teaching," agrees Dara Davis, who teaches science at Rognel Heights Elementary and Middle School in Edmondson Village. Being in a library, though, reminds her of her own childhood days as a happy reader.

"My sister, who is about four years older than me, taught herself how to read. I couldn't wait to read. I remember going to kindergarten and meeting the teacher and asking, 'Is this the lady who's going to teach me how to read?'" she said. "My mother would take me to the Pratt downtown. That was my favorite, because of the fish. But the problem is the parking. So we're happy to have this one here."

The new library replaces one that was farther east on Orleans, at Broadway. It closed in May, and is being torn down as part of the huge biotech park being built adjacent to the Johns Hopkins medical complex.

Six years after the Pratt, over much outcry, closed five of its neighborhood branches, the library is back to opening rather than closing facilities -- the new Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown in May, and the Orleans Branch yesterday -- to a crowd that formed in anticipation of the noon opening.

"It gave me butterflies to see that," said clerk Rhoda Ruggs.

She and other staff members have been working in the new building since July. "We finally had to lock the door because people kept coming in," said Virginia Fore, the branch's manager.

Inside, the facility smelled new rather than musty, and it had a bright, airy feeling, at least compared with the dark and shadowy libraries of my childhood.

While many of the branch users were tapping away on the 16 computers, checking out e-mail accounts and MySpace pages, a surprising number of kids were reading actual books.

"We try to tell them, the Internet is great and all, but books are always ready for them," said Torri Carter, a children's librarian.

Lashawnda Sykes, 14, and Dishaye Davis, 13, are sitting at a table with a stack of books ranging from Bronx Masquerade to one of the Drama High series to Mortgages for Dummies. (I guess the foreclosure crisis really is on everyone's minds these days.)

But nothing on the desk compares with what Dishaye considers the best books she read this summer: Zlata's Diary, by a girl who lived in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, and Freedom Writers Diary, the journals of a California classroom, which was made into a movie.

"I can't relate to fiction books," Dishaye said. "I like nonfiction."

Meanwhile, Khalil Davis had picked out two books -- Dino Wars: The Dinosaurs' Biggest, Baddest Battles and Jungle Drums -- to take home, although he was disappointed that neither he nor the lady at the desk could find a Thomas the Tank Engine book that he wanted to read to his 4-year-old brother, Ian.

"I was 4 years old when my father taught me how to read," he said of his dad, Kevin. "I read baby books. When I was five, I had trouble with big words like 'responsibility.' Now I can spell it, r-e-s-p-o-n-s-i-b-i-l-i-t-y."

His mother says he reads at the sixth-grade level. Khalil remembers what it was like not to be able to read.

"Life," he reports, "was boring."


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