As the pandemic eases, and travel becomes a possibility again, you might ask yourself (if you are a book nerd, like me) what major public library should I visit next? Lucky for you, dear reader, I have your answer right here: come visit the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland! I have lived in the Baltimore area for over ten years, and I can attest to the awesomeness that is the Pratt. In addition to its beautiful main library on Cathedral Street, the system boasts 22 community and neighborhood branches throughout the city. Read more about the Enoch Pratt Free Library below, and schedule your visit soon.
The Early History of the Enoch Pratt Free Library
The Pratt Library got its start in 1882 when Baltimore businessman Enoch Pratt gave the city a sizable gift. Pratt proposed the creation of a central library, four smaller branches, and promised an endowment of over $1 million. His goal was to create a library that would be for “rich and poor without distinction of race or color.” Pratt had previously made a fortune as an iron commission merchant. He later took on administrative roles in a number of financial and commercial enterprises, further solidifying his wealth.
The library opened in January 1886 with 32,000 volumes in its collection. From its start, the Pratt Library displayed a commitment to provide books and services to all people living in Baltimore. Smithsonian librarian Amy A. Begg writes that Pratt “purchased books for the branch libraries, in Polish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish” for those growing immigrant communities in the early 20th century. Also, branches were built in Jewish and African American neighborhoods, using funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. After outgrowing its old digs, the main library moved to its current location on Cathedral Street in 1933.
Things to Do At the Enoch Pratt Free Library
Okay, so in addition to being a book nerd (as I mentioned above), I am also a research enthusiast. I love old book rooms, archives, special collections: really, any combination of books, dust, and manuscript papers gets me going. If that is your thing, then you are going to love the Pratt Library. The Cathedral Street building houses some of the most interesting and varied collections in the state of Maryland. For example, the African American Department has extensive print and visual materials detailing historic Black culture in Baltimore and Maryland. The Pratt Library is also home to the H.L. Mencken Room, one of the most important collections of Mencken’s writings in the world.
Furthermore, the Pratt Library holds a variety of events, including book clubs, author talks, and film screenings. Although many of these events are virtual due to COVID-19, they still form an integral part of the library’s culture. My current favorite is the Read Woke Challenge, which encourages middle- and high-schoolers to read and engage with a range of diverse voices. Additionally, library patrons and visitors can register for bookish arts and crafts sessions, learn how to make protest signs (a handy skill!), or do fun STEM projects like building flying machines.
Finally, once your eyes hit the wall, and your brain is done for the day, make sure to soak in the newly restored architectural flourishes within the Cathedral Street library.
The Pratt Library and Social Outreach
The Enoch Pratt Free Library is more than its extensive holdings and fantastic events. It also provides a number of social services to the larger Baltimore area and its communities. For example, the Lawyer in the Library program offers free, one-on-one legal services and advice. Inquiring patrons can receive help with a range of topics, from housing and financial issues, to government and unemployment benefits. Likewise, the Social Worker in the Library provides patrons with easy access to social services throughout the city. Although COVID-19 has temporarily hindered in-person meetings, both programs have virtual and phone options.
Additionally, the Library has book mobile and job center vehicles that bring reading material and employment resources to Baltimore residents. As a bonus, the vehicles also operate as community wi-fi hotspots. The book mobile service has been suspended due to the pandemic, but the job center vehicles are still operational. And, as always, patrons who are looking for employment, or considering a career change, can check out the Job & Career Information Center, located at the main branch.
So, if ever you find yourself in the Baltimore area, stop by and visit the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Without a doubt, your inner book nerd will thank you!