Heidi Daniel tajkes over as president of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
When I came to Baltimore 40 years ago, I encountered the icebreaker question: “Where did you go to school?” At first, I answered with my college, until I understood that in Baltimore, it meant: What was your high school? People felt a genuine warmth, loyalty and devotion to the schools they attended during their formative years. When I became a member of the Enoch Pratt Free Library board, I borrowed from this Baltimore convention and began asking: “What was your branch?” I was not prepared for the force of the answers: quick, enthusiastic and full of affection. “Pratt stories” tumbled out.
When I asked my colleague Marvin Garbis, a fellow federal judge in Maryland, he shot back: “Branch 14” in Northwest Baltimore, a “friendly place” for a child. He read a lot and remembered — 60 plus years ago — winning the branch summer reading contest.
When I asked Alicia Wilson, a young lawyer friend, she lit up: Erdman Avenue branch! Turned on to reading in the fifth grade by the book “Friends” by Rosa Guy, but without the money to buy books, her mother said she would have to go to the library. And, she did, every day after school, devouring one to two books a week. Alicia explained that in books she could go to faraway places, meet people beyond her neighborhood and explore her dreams. “If I had had to buy access to this opportunity,” Alicia mused, so many doors never would have opened.
For Ann Weller Dahl, a long time Pratt volunteer, it was Branch 6 on St. Paul Street. When she was 3, Ann’s mother asked the librarian to recommend a child’s book; the woman suggested Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings,” adding presciently: “I think it will win the Caldecott.” And indeed it did! “Make Way for Ducklings” became a favorite in Ann’s family, with her father building a Christmas garden that replicated the Boston Public Garden with a pond where the ducklings swam and with a street that the ducklings crossed all in a row. And Ann is now an expert on McCloskey’s work.
For these three, and thousands more Baltimoreans, the library was a place of opportunity and discovery, an integral part of their childhoods and an indispensable part of their successes.
There will be many more Pratt stories due to the extraordinary leadership of Sen. Barbara Robinson. In the 2016 General Assembly session, the senator introduced legislation for expanded hours throughout the library system, especially in areas of greatest need. Over the years library hours and services had shrunk because of budget cuts. However, the role of the Pennsylvania Avenue branch as a sanctuary in the chaos of the civil unrest after the death of Freddie Gray was a strong, fresh reminder of the supreme value of our libraries. With the help of Del. Maggie McIntosh, Senator Robinson’s bill passed, appropriating $3 million for expanded hours. Branches will be open for longer hours, with more programming, including assistance with job-hunting , homework help for schoolchildren, lectures for adults, makerspaces for teenagers and books, books, books.
Senator Robinson has her own Pratt story. Growing up in the rural south, in an impoverished and troubled family, she said the library of her youth was a “refuge” and “safe haven.” When she moved to Baltimore and lived in public housing, the Central Library was her “means of mind-travelling.” As a budding author, she wrote after her children went to sleep, with borrowed books at her side. Libraries propelled her to a successful life as an entrepreneur, author and state legislator.
I suspect that many of us have Pratt stories, whether we grew up here or not. I certainly do. My mother, who was not highly educated, asked her more educated sister-in-law for parenting advice. I can still hear my mother tell the story. “Your aunt said, ‘Asta, make them readers.’” And indeed my mother did, with weekly trips to the library with my three sisters and me, who left with our arms full of books. We owned few books, but our home was always full of books and reading. And I will never forget the kindness of our local librarian. When my mother finally had time to read in the last years of her life, that librarian put aside books that she thought she would like. And at age 70, my mother discovered the great joy and pleasure of reading.
So, kudos to Senator Robinson, Delegate McIntosh and the librarians in our lives. Let’s pay it forward with unwavering support for the Pratt, so that future generations of Baltimoreans can have life-changing and life-enriching libraries in their lives. And may the Pratt stories continue.