1882: Enoch Pratt Free Library established

Enoch Pratt created the Enoch Pratt Free Library in 1882, with a gift of $1,058,333 to the City of Baltimore to support the construction of a central library and four branch libraries and an endowment gift for their operation. Born in North Middleborough, Massachusetts, Pratt came to Baltimore in 1830. Over the next few decades, Pratt became a successful merchant, railroad director and ship operator. Pratt joined his contemporaries Johns Hopkins, George Peabody, Moses Shepherd, and Thomas Kelso in becoming a philanthropist: serving as a trustee of the Peabody Institute (as treasurer and chairman of its library committee); founding the Maryland School for the Deaf and Dumb in Frederick (1867); and founding the House of Reformation and Instruction for Colored Children at Cheltenham (1870).

The Mayor and City Council accepted Pratt’s 1882 gift and, on October 1, 1884, Pratt formally transferred the management of the new libraries to the new Board of Trustees. He shared his wish that the library buildings remain “accessible to the people… they being for all, rich and poor, without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them.”

January 5, 1886: Central Library branch opens

On January 5, 1886, the Central Library on Mulberry Street opened to patrons. Within the next three months, four branches opened in residential neighborhood including Branch 1 (at Fremont and Pitcher Streets), Branch 2 (at Hollins and Calhoun Streets), Branch 3 (at Light and Gittings Streets), and Branch 4 (at Canton and O’Donnell Streets). All four branches were designed by architect Charles L. Carson.

November 14, 1896: Saint Paul Street Branch Library opens with 6,500 books

Village Learning Place, Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD

The Enoch Pratt Free Library grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to become one of the nation’s largest library systems in both the size of its collection and the scale of its circulation. Only three public library systems in Boston, Chicago, and Cincinnati held larger collections and only the libraries in Boston, Chicago, and New York had greater circulation. New branches, including the Saint Paul Street Branch (also known as the Peabody Heights branch), were an important part of this growth.

Although architect Charles L. Carson died on December 18, 1891, his partner Joseph Evans Sperry (hired in 1888 as his assistant and later as a partner in the firm Carson and Sperry) carried Carson’s design for the Saint Paul Street Branch to completion. The new library opened on November 14, 1896, with 6,500 books.1

Patrons, including many students from nearby Goucher College, began borrowing books with enthusiasm. According to a report in the Sun on Jan 22, 1897, library director Dr. Bernard Christian Steiner remarked on “increased usefulness of the branch libraries […] saying that more books are circulated in these weekly than at the central library”. Steiner arranged for extended hours at the Saint Paul Street branch:

On his recommendation the trustees voted to keep open from 9 A. M. until 9 P. M. instead of only from 2 until 9 P. M., the branches in North and South Baltimore, at the corner of Light and Gittings Streets, and on St. Paul street near Huntingdon avenue. The other branches, with the exception of the one in Canton, were similarly opened about a year ago.

On Jun 22, 1897, the Sun on Dr. Bernard C. Steiner, librarian of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, presentation at a quarterly meeting of the library trustees which noted a “marked decrease which has recently been noted in the use of fiction at the Central Library”. Steiner attributed the change to the “opening of Branch No. 6, on St. Paul street, near Huntingdon avenue, where fiction is borrowed in large quantities.” Additional improvements followed in 1906, when the library acquired the lot behind the building and planted a garden and, in 1920, when electric lighting replaced gaslights in the building.2

1952: Saint Paul Street Branch Library renovated

Branch Number 6 (Charles Village or Peabody Heights), Enoch Pratt Free Library, c. 1950. Courtesy Digital Maryland, [scpr098](http://collections.digitalmaryland.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/scpr/id/43/rec/5)

In the 1940s, the library considered closing the Saint Paul Street Branch and building a larger facility at North Avenue and Calvert Street. Fortunately for nearby patrons, the plans never developed and, in 1952, the city renovated the existing branch.3

A growing African American population in many Baltimore neighborhoods in the 1950s, however, left library officials (who had maintained segregated hiring practices up through the 1940s) uncertain how to respond. A 1955 report (quoted in the Sun on January 30, 1955) obliquely referenced the issue:

“Population shifts in the city are at the present time occurring so rapidly, and new branches already erected are affecting the library service … /[it] is unwise to make definite predictions concerning changes or improvement needs for some branches.”

This category of unpredictable branch locations included Saint Paul Street along with branches at “Fremont and Pitcher, Light and Gittings, Ellwood and O’Donnell, 816 North Broadway… Falls road. South Central, Barre and Carroll, Keyworth avenue, Wolfe and Twentieth, South Ann, South Loudon, Roland avenue and Belair road and LaSalle.” The Sun quoted library director Amy Winslow on “the effects of population on library services” commenting:

“Sparsely settled areas call for one type of library service, densely populated areas for another. Certain characteristics predominate in one type of population, others in another. One community, because of these characteristics, makes heavy demands on a library; in another community a large percentage of the population may have little interest in reading or be unskilled in the use of books. Needs in such an area are of an entirely different character, but the obligation of the library to meet the needs of the people is of equal importance in any area of the city.”4

The growth of the system after WWII, however, may have stretched budgets as, by June 1957, Winslow announced that the library planned to close all branch locations (although not the Central Branch) on Saturdays between June 24 and August to save money over the summer.

By the late 1950s and 1960s, the Enoch Pratt Free Library began offering a growing variety of programs to patrons. For example, on Nov 3, 1957, the Sun reported on the “the traditional lighting of a ‘wishing candle’”” that several libraries used to mark the beginning of the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s fall and winter story hours (featuring weekly readings of fairy tales, and folk tales, and modern stories). At the Saint Paul Street Branch, children could come listen to stories on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. Barbara S. Moody, the library’s “assistant coordinator of work with children”, directed the “story-hour program.” On June 9, 1962, the Sun reported:

Special read-aloud sessions offering a variety of favorite children’s books will be the summer activity at several branches. These are: Northwood branch, Wednesdays, 2 P.M., June 18 through August 1; St. Paul street branch, Fridays, 1.30 P.M., June 15 through July 20, and Cherry Ilill station, Thursdays, 10.30 A.M., June 21 through August 2.

On July 23, 1969, the Sun reported on the library’s upcoming calendar of movies for adults, teenagers, and children, a puppet play, and other events. “Movies for children” were scheduled for the Saint Paul Street branch along with “the Brooklyn, Light street, Patterson Park, Gardenville, Hamilton, Roland Park, Pennsylvania avenue… Govans, Pimlico and Fells Point branches.” Movies and film screenings continued in the 1970s such as “The Thirty-nine Steps. Pratt’s St. Paul Street Center. Wednesday 6 p.m.” advertised in the Afro-American on June 10, 1978.

Margaret Spencer North served as the director of the Saint Paul Street Branch for several years up until her retirement in 1981. North was a Baltimore native who graduated from the Bryn Mawr School and Bryn Mawr College. She returned to Baltimore in 1961 and became a librarian around that time.5

On July 5, 1981, the Sun reported on a plan by the Enoch Pratt Free Library to stretch its limited budget by implementing rolling, month-long closures of branches in 1981 and 1982. The Saint Paul Street Branch (then known as the Saint Paul Street Center) was scheduled to close in October and reopen November 3.

On June 19, 1984, the Sun reported on a presentation by Enoch Pratt Free Library director Anna Curry to the City Council where she shared plans to “close two small branches located within the Kirk and Reservoir Hill multi-purpose centers and discontinue one of its three bookmobiles because of limited funds”. Curry compared deciding which libraries to close to “deciding which of your children to put up for adoption”, explaining, “We do not have a branch that is not well used, relative to the needs of the community.” Curry suggested that the patrons for the closing Kirk Center at 909 East 22nd Street could use the Saint Paul Branch instead.

On May 10, 1990, the Sun reported on additional cutbacks at the Enoch Pratt Library, after a “tight municipal budget proposed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke” left the director with $1 million less than the library needed to “maintain its current level of service”. After Curry presented the news to the City Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi (D – 6th) remarked:

“It looks as though we’re becoming a city that reads part time.”

Curry observed that the library had lost 100 positions over the prior three years. She proposed closing two community reading rooms (or “homework centers”) in Lafayette Square (1510 W. Lafayette Street) and in Reservoir Hill (2001 Park Avenue). The Saint Paul Street branch was one of eighteen locations where hours would be reduced.

1997: Saint Paul Street Branch library closes and Village Learning Place opens

A photo feature in The Sun in 1991, poignantly captioned “A librarian’s reward” encouraged readers to reflect on the impact of budget cuts to the library system:

Children from Margaret Brent Elementary School surround Theresa Edmonds, a librarian at the St- Paul Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Library, at a farewell party. Ms. Edmonds, who has worked at the tiny branch in Charles Village for a year and in the library system for 14 years, is to be laid off Friday — a victim of Baltimore’s budget cuts.

Community Residents Protest Closure of Pratt Branch No. 6, 1997

In 1997, when the Enoch Pratt Free Library finally announced plans to close the Saint Paul Street Center, local residents responded with protests and filed a lawsuit against the city. While ultimately unsuccessful at keeping the library opening, the closure became a catalyst for a concerted two-year campaign to lease the city-owned building and reopen the library in a more modern guise.”

The library reopened in May 2000 with a “book brigade” passing the newly donated collections hand-to-hand from storage in Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School to the newly renovated building. Jamie Stiehm reported for the Sun on May 6, 2000, writing:

No single Charles Village activist took credit for leading the cause, but each praised others for their “sweat equity” in scrubbing tile and scraping paint, along with applying for government and foundation grants. Libby Pennacchia planted pansies, a much-noticed small act on the 2500 block of St. Paul St.

“We want to serve as a model for other communities with abandoned city-owned buildings,” said Jennifer Feit, 29-year-old executive director of the nonprofit Village Learning Place, pausing to admire new wooden shelves soon to be filled with 143 magazines and an adult collection of about 1,000 new books. “I like working toward something people think is unattainable,” she said.

Feit said the largest source of money raised was from the state, including a $156,000 bond bill. The Abell and Goldseker foundations also made substantial five-figure grants. The Pratt library donated staff time and advice from Ann Smith, the Northeast District supervisor. In all, it took half a million dollars to reach this point, Feit estimated. […]

Children who did not know of the struggle to save the building still saw the difference between the past and present. Said 11-year- old Brittany Smith, “The shelves were crooked and the paint peeled off. This place is really changed. It makes me happy to come to a beautiful library.”

For more than a decade since, the Village Learning Place has thrived as a community gathering space and resource for local residents. A Brief History of Charles Village describes the work of the Village Learning Place since its’ founding:

the Village Learning Place has been offering educational services for young people and senior citizens and has a collection of over fifteen thousand books available for checkout. Programs include everything from gardening symposiums to wine appreciation to unique, safe after-school programs for Baltimore City students.6


“A Chance to Be Heard; Pratt’s Future: Hearings Offer Public a Voice on City Library’s Strategic Plan.: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. October 24, 1997, sec. EDITORIAL.

“A Librarian’s Reward: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. December 3, 1991, sec. METRO.

Alexander, Gregory J., and Paul K. Williams. A Brief History of Charles Village. Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Alvarez, Rafael. “Pratt Proposing Extensive Changes; Closely Guarded Plan for ‘megabranches’ Worries Some Patrons: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. March 2, 1997, sec. METRO.

Alvarez, Rafael, and Martin C. Evans. “Pratt Chief Warns of Cuts in Branch Hours, Services: 2 Reading Rooms Also May Be Closed.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. May 10, 1990.

“ANNEX PLANNER DEAD: Owen Brainard, Of New York, Made Study Of Local Developments FINAL REPORT ALMOST READY Spent Considerable Time Here Looking After Civic Center, St. Paul Street And Other Improvements.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. April 4, 1919.

Davis, Ron. “City Library to Close 2 Small Branches.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. June 19, 1984.

“Denies Permit For Book Shop At 3327 St. Paul St.: Hammond Says He Could Not Approve Store And Library In Residential Section.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. August 17, 1929.

“Enoch Pratt Library Reading Trek Planned.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. June 9, 1962.

“ENOCH PRATT LIBRARY: Mr. James A. Gary Is Elected President to Succeed the Late Mr. Pratt JUDGE THOMAS J. MORRIS He Is Chosen Vice-President in Place of Mr. Gary An Interesting Report of Librarian Steiner, Showing the Growth of the Central Library and Its Various Branches–Total Number of Books, 176,329.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. January 22, 1897.

“‘Fair Play’ Appeals To The Mayor To Close The Pratt Library And Branches On Decemher 26.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. December 18, 1914.

“GUARDIANS OF BOOKS: Librarian Steiner, of the Pratt Library, to Attend National and Inter- National Conferences.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. June 22, 1897.

“Hours Are Listed By Pratt Library.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. June 20, 1951.

“HOURS SET AT LIBRARY: Branches, But Not Central, Close Saturday In Summer.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. June 11, 1957.

“Library Story Hours.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. November 3, 1957.

“Margaret S. North, Pratt Librarian, Dies.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. March 5, 1983.

Matthews, Robert Guy. “City to Close 2 Branches, Cut Other Library Services; Users’ Outcry Greets Money-Saving Moves: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. August 6, 1997, sec. NEWS.

———. “Judge Blocks Library Closing; Charles Village Group Wins Temporary Order to Keep Branch Open: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. August 29, 1997, sec. NEWS.

“Other 31 – No Title.” Afro-American (1893-1988); Baltimore, Md. June 10, 1978.

“Pratt Announces Month-Long Closings of Some Library Branches in 1981-1982.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. July 5, 1981.

“Pratt Library: Puppet Play Among Attractions Scheduled Next Week.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. July 23, 1969.

Shapiro, Stephanie. “A Good Feeling in Charles Village; City: Residents Find the Strength in Numbers to Fix Problems and Embrace Urban Living.: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. June 5, 1999, sec. TODAY.

———. “Lost Chapters; Library: Personal Treasures and Oddities Once Used as Bookmarks Wait in Lost and Found While a Life Story Goes on without Them.: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. August 6, 1997, sec. FEATURES.

Stiehm, Jamie. “Bound by Books, Desire; Library: When Its Branch Closed, Charles Village Refused the Final Chapter. Tomorrow, It Turns the Page to a Happy Ending, and New Center.: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. May 5, 2000, sec. LOCAL.

———. “Pratt Library Plans Include Modernization, Construction of Four ‘mini-Central’ Facilities: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. October 28, 1997, sec. METRO.

“Sun Was Wrong on Cost of New Branches for Pratt Library Series: SERIES – Rejoinder: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. October 28, 1997, sec. EDITORIAL.

“TO HEAR ‘STORY MOTHER’: Children Registering For Miss Katharine P. Woods Talk FAMOUS WRITER COMES FRIDAY At The St. Paul Branch Of The Pratt Library, She Will Tell The Children What To Read.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. September 30, 1906.

“USE OF BOOKS RISES 18.8%: Borrowers At Pratt Library, Professional Aid Also Up.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. January 30, 1955.

“WORK OF BRANCH LIBRARIES: Table Showing Progress At Seven Pratt Institutions.” The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. December 18, 1906.

  1. Alexander, Gregory J., and Paul K. Williams. A Brief History of Charles Village. Arcadia Publishing, 2009.] 

  2. Alexander, Gregory J., and Paul K. Williams. A Brief History of Charles Village. Arcadia Publishing, 2009. 

  3. Alexander, Gregory J., and Paul K. Williams. A Brief History of Charles Village. Arcadia Publishing, 2009. 

  4. The Sun account includes details on the library system’s growth from the 1940s to the mid 1950s and related funding challenges. 

  5. See Sun obituary for more. Local relatives identified in the obituary include Jeremy Wethered North, of Baltimore; Valerie B. Gulick, of Arlington, Va.; John Marshall Barroll, of Easton. 

  6. Alexander, Gregory J., and Paul K. Williams. A Brief History of Charles Village. Arcadia Publishing, 2009.