IN PRAISE OF THE PRATT:
When H.L. Mencken Came to the Defense of the Enoch Pratt Library
Since 1886 the staff of the library has proudly served visitors by providing resources from a uniquely diverse collection. An impressive array of books, films, music, periodicals, and special collections form the nucleus of a researcher’s dream.
In the past, one of the library's most vocal (and well known) supporters was literary giant H.L. Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore."
Although he was a frequent visitor to the Hollins Street Branch, it was the collection of Central Library that influenced him the most as he rose to prominence in the literary world.
Eighty years ago Mencken wrote an editorial in which he praised the collection and the staff of the Enoch Pratt Library while at the same time attacking locals for the apparent lack of municipal support.
The article, which appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun on February 2, 1925, called for increased monetary support of the institution. “For years this admirable institution has been the homely step-child of Baltimore, neglected and put upon, and yet ever diligent and enormously useful.”
Although Mencken pointed out the superior municipal support of libraries in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Boston he was quick to note that Pratt had been “very competently managed for many years.” Later he added, “The Pratt Library, after giving its valuable service for more than a generation, is still housed in crowded and inconvenient quarters.” His opinion was that the property along the rest of the block, facing Cathedral Street and owned by the trustees of the library, should be used for a new building.
Mencken’s only disappointment in the library was his distaste for the architecture of the original building, declaring that it was “so infernally hideous that it ought to be pulled down by the common hangman. The only thing that might be said in favor of it is that it is in a narrow street, and is thus not too brilliantly visible.”
He was particularly offended by the façade of the building, which he said should be “torn off and thrown into the harbor in common decency, along with the bones of the architect who designed it.”
By 1927, area voters approved the construction of a new edifice facing Cathedral Street, with the northern and southern boundaries of Mulberry and Franklin Streets.
The façade of the old library was removed (although there is no evidence that it was thrown into the harbor along with the architect). Despite the fact that Mencken had been willing to show mercy on the main body of the original structure, it was torn down to make room for the rear of the new building.
Mencken’s suggestion had been prophetic. He envisioned a new library that would provide space for 1,500,000 books and serve the city at least a century. It would seem that he got his wish and more.
Although H.L. used the new facilities from time to time, it is impossible to surmise what his reaction might have been to the tremendous changes that have occurred since his death.
With executive director Dr. Carla D. Hayden at the helm, the Enoch Pratt Free Library enters the new millennium with continuing support from state, municipal, public, and private concerns.
Although it is likely Mencken would have scoffed at the notion of writing letters by e-mail or entering the portals of the New York Public Library with the stroke of a computer key, he could not help but be amazed at what has happened to his beloved library.
With the opening of a 43,000-square-foot annex in November of 2003 and trail-blazing efforts to afford widespread access to materials through expanding computer technology, the Enoch Pratt Free Library appears committed to remain one of the leading institutions of its kind.
On that cold day in February, 1925 Mencken noted the Enoch Pratt Library as “one of the largest and the best public libraries in the United States. In fact, its 475,000 volumes gives it a dignified rank among the great libraries of the world.”
For the citizens of Maryland, it is the greatest!
Ralph Clayton retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in November, 2004, after more than three decades of service. He is the author of Cash For Blood: The Baltimore to New Orleans Domestic Slave Trade (Heritage Books, 2002). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story was published on July 5, 2005.