Thank you, Mr. Pratt
Reader, beware: An excursion into nostalgia follows.
Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Enoch Pratt, the philanthropist who donated the money for Baltimore to establish a free library. They’re celebrating at the Pratt, of course, and over on Read Street, there’s an invitation to share memories of one’s experiences with libraries.
I grew up book-hungry and book-starved. Books were expensive and scarce in Eastern Kentucky in the late 1950s and early ’60s: no public library in Fleming County, meager holdings in the public schools, no bookstores for miles around.
My family owned some Bobbsey Twin books from my older sister’s childhood. There was a little gift shop in Maysville that, for some reason, stocked a few copies of the Hardy Boys series for a dollar apiece, and my grandmother would buy me one as a treat when she went shopping at Merz Bros. My sister would occasionally check out books for me from the Morehead State University library when she was a student there. (Once she smuggled me into the stacks. Glorious. All those books.) And there were comic books, which sustained me day to day; my gratitude for that leads me to be indulgent about my son’s taste for graphic novels today.
A bookmobile made its first appearance in the county about 1962, and I became one of its most eager patrons. One summer I rode along as a volunteer with the librarian, Ms. Betty Moss, helping check out and shelves books at the little towns around the county.
A public library was established in, I think, 1964, at first no more than a wall of books on one side of the Times-Democrat office, later occupying the whole of that space. I volunteered there for one summer with the librarian, Ms. Margaret Davis. The county constructed a brick building in 1967 to house the library, and I haunted it during high school, usually to the pleasure of the librarian, Ms. Lila Lee Humphries. The last time I was back, there were still books on the shelves with my signature on the cards. Some had even been read since.
As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I worked in the receiving room at the university library, opening and sorting periodicals and books. As a graduate student, I spent many hours in Bird Library. Graduate school on fellowship — being paid to loiter in libraries and read books.
And now, a Baltimorean and beneficiary of Mr. Pratt’s generosity I frequent the Hamilton branch near my house and the central library on Cathedral Street downtown.
The central library is a noble building, with a huge main room with skylights three stories up and portraits of the Lords Calvert, the Colonial proprietors, on the walls. It is, in its way, a holy place, like the Basilica of the Assumption across the street. The basilica, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, begun in Thomas Jefferson’s administration and recently restored, is a neoclassical beauty. The restoration reintroduced translucent glass in the windows of the nave and the 24 skylights in the dome. It is Enlightenment architecture, and both buildings, in their differing ways, are meant to let the light in.