In her time working for Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library system, Sadye Whitt has seen 10 mayoral inaugurations, five library administrations, thousands of book acquisitions and countless technological changes.
That’s what happens when you’ve worked for the city longer than anyone else — 56 years, to be exact.
“That's the stubborn streak in me,” Whitt said of her career’s longevity. “I like doing what I do. If you're doing something you hate, why would you do it? I've been blessed working at Pratt. Not a lot of people can say that about their job.”
Whitt, 77, was first hired by the Enoch Pratt library department on April 3, 1962, according to city records. The next person in line for Baltimore’s title of longest-tenured public employee, an office supervisor for the police department, wasn’t hired until January 1965. The average city employee in 2018 typically had about 13.37 years on the job.
“We've always had fun,” Whitt said of her job and department. “It's been good, and that says a lot over the years.”
Whitt walks with a cane, frequently comes to work in a pair of silver sneakers and hasn’t bothered counting her hire date anniversaries for about 10 or 15 years — library staff refreshed Whitt’s memory last year when they celebrated her 55th.
At first impression, Whitt might seem a little shy. Soft-spoken, she much prefers her position in acquisitions to interacting directly with patrons. When asked about her career, she refers to notes she’s written out in neat cursive to make sure she hasn’t forgotten a date or the name of an old colleague she once admired.
However, Whitt is also direct, and comfortable navigating the technology that’s been introduced to her job description over the years. A smartwatch glints on her wrist as she types book order details into her desktop computer. Co-workers drop by her desk frequently to rehash the good old days at the library.
Whitt has decades' worth of memories to pull from — from the library’s role in cultivating Whitt’s passion for reading to its changing policies since before Baltimore’s civil rights era.
“I think it’s a testament to Pratt library that we have employees like Sadye who stay entire careers,” said a library spokeswoman, Meghan McCorkell. “I couldn’t believe so many have 50, 46, 40 years. That’s the norm here.”
Whitt was 21 when she first applied for a position at the Fells Point branch library. It was a perfect gig, within walking distance of her childhood home on Fleet Street. In 1967, she transferred to her current position, helping the library process book acquisitions in the Collections Access Service Division. A co-worker now gives her rides to work every day from her home in the Loch Raven neighborhood.
Whitt’s job is to place orders for new books, process arrivals, track the condition of books and approve invoice payments. For years, her duties were performed almost entirely on paper, which required her to stay organized and meticulous.
In the 1980s, technology started to creep into the library’s operations. Whitt studied to keep up with what seemed like an entirely new language surrounding computers, she said.
“I mean, the vocabulary alone,” she said. “What is a mouse you don’t have to set a trap for? A cookie you don’t eat?”
But Whitt said she does not fear change and has welcomed the technology that makes her job more efficient.
These days, acquisitions staffers like Whitt work out of a windowless warehouse on Annapolis Road while the central library building on Cathedral Street undergoes a $115 million renovation. The grand reopening is scheduled for fall 2019.
Whitt’s job caries the generic title of Office Assistant III in Baltimore City employee records. Her manager, Yvonne Patillo, says Whitt is responsible for digitally processing books and reference materials, like dictionaries, catalogs and statistical texts.
Acquisition employees like Whitt bring the library’s shelves to life, Patillo said.
“We’re hidden,” Patillo said.
Though Whitt rarely interacts with visitors, countless books they read have passed through her hands.
Whitt still vividly remembers some of the darker moments in Baltimore’s history through the lens of the library system. There was a time, she said, when African-American historical texts were kept separate from the library’s primary collection.
“They were kept in the work room,” Whitt said. “You had to ask them to pull it for you.”
And then there was the utility closet door inside the women’s bathroom in an employee section of the library. The paint was partially faded, but Whitt could read the word “colored” on the door for years, she said.
She watched multiple administrations come and go, the door left unaddressed.
“Why hadn’t this been removed?” she thought each time she passed it. “Horrible, just horrible. All those administrations and it was still readable.”
The door was eventually replaced in the early 1990s, Whitt said.
Whitt’s cubicle is decorated with stacks of papers and knickknacks, like a sign that says “I’m not old, I’m just becoming vintage.” Her chair faces a massive storage room where thousands of volumes of books are processed by the library system each day. She is eagerly awaiting her department’s return to the central library building.
“I used to ride bus No. 3, which stopped right in front,” she said of the central library. “Every morning I’d get off the bus and pause to see the most elaborate window displays.”
Library staffer Brian McNair first met Whitt when he began in the department in 2013. They became fast friends when they took a library-organized line-dancing class during a lunch break.
"Miss Sadye was in there with all those youngsters bopping along,” he said.
McNair was born the year Whitt first started working for Enoch Pratt, so the memories she has of her career are often mirrored in recollections of his childhood. The two have unofficially adopted each other as a nephew and aunt.
They lamented the loss of some library employee lunch spots and thought wistfully of the days when, they said, downtown Baltimore was in its prime.
“We have a lot we can share with memories of those eras and how things changed a whole lot,” McNair said.
Whitt said her proudest moment during her career happened in 1984 during the library’s Black Family Ties exhibit, in which photos of her own family members were included.
Through all the library’s changes and historical moments, Whitt said she’s still a traditionalist about one thing.
”There's nothing like the smell of a new book,” she said. “You would think because I work in a library, I wouldn't buy, but I do.”
Whitt’s decades in the library helped build her into an avid reader, she said. Her favorite book in the library is the King James version of the Bible — though for months she was awaiting the arrival of “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Sometimes she gets to leaf through copies of new releases as the library adds to its collection.
After 56 years working for the library, Whitt said, she has found peace cherishing the memories of what was while embracing what has come to be.
For the past few weeks, Whitt has begun taking home one or two knickknacks from her desk — not in preparation for retirement, though. She has no interest in leaving the job she loves.
“Work is not a dirty word,” she said.
The slow removal of items from her desk is in preparation to move back to the third floor of the central library building. Whitt looks forward to passing by those big windows of the historic building each morning once again.
The act of tucking a spare mouse pad or some paperweights into her purse each Friday gives her a pang of excitement to return to Cathedral Street. That building, she said, is her home.
“That’s why I come every day, because my feet know the way,” she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Zhang contributed to this article.