Baltimore adopted the mantra “The City That Reads” in the late ’80s, plastering it on benches throughout the city, around the same time I was discovering a love for books.
I remember those capitalized white letters on wooden slats making me feel like I truly belonged in Baltimore because I’ve been, if nothing else, a lifelong reader.
As a toddler, I didn’t sleep with a blankie, like one of my brothers did, or a special stuffed animal, like my other brother. Instead, I slept with a copy of “Goodnight Moon.” It wasn’t long before my mother, a now-retired nurse, described the ripped and wrinkled book as being “in critical condition.”
In elementary school, I read chapter books while I walked outside. My seventh grade language arts teacher asked our class to set personal reading goals, and then doubted mine. “Fifty minutes a night? Are you sure you want to read that much?”
Nearly every college student complains about being saddled with cumbersome reading, but I declared English as one of my majors so I could read novels, creative nonfiction, and poetry instead of just textbooks. Years later, when I realized I wanted to teach, I only saw one viable option: high school English.
But first, I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, serving unhoused people living with HIV/AIDS. Together, my clients and I studied for the GED, wrote resumes and filled out job applications — often at a library. These moments, surrounded by books and nudging toward goals, made me fall in love with Baltimore’s library system.
My AmeriCorps assignment required me to travel the city, meeting my clients where they were. I remember researching Enoch Pratt’s numerous branches and telling my father, whose job was also mobile, “I want to collect as many of the libraries as I can,” as if they were charms on a bracelet.
I have been curating my own written collection of libraries for decades. Below are some of my favorites:
I’m a proud second-generation Hamilton patron. My mom and her childhood best friend grew up spending their summers here. Later, as new mothers, they brought their firstborns to storytime, checking out books like “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” I visited recently, intrigued by the Arab American Heritage Month display and tempted by the children’s titles about activism — and, most of all, grateful for the generations of literary citizens nurtured here.
Enoch Pratt envisioned that his “library shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color.” Nearly 150 years later, Baltimore’s libraries are among the few places where our diverse populations intersect. The Govans church I grew up in, bordering neglected York Road and affluent Homeland, is another. In middle school, volunteering at Vacation Bible School, I accompanied a parade of children to the nearby library, not knowing at the time that we were a living part of Enoch Pratt’s legacy.
No one loved libraries more than my paternal grandmother, an elementary school librarian. I imagine I’m second to her for my love of libraries in the way I revere the Enoch Pratt’s main branch, a spellbinding building that inspires both reading and reveling. This library — light-filled, high-ceilinged, window-lined — is nearly a block long. Its architecture is art. I catch my breath every time I enter, and not just because it is a place for sheltering and sharing books. I’ve met prized authors, like James McBride and Wally Lamb, here; as a long-time member of the Pratt Contemporaries, I’ve attended private events where I’ve danced and drank among the bookshelves. It’s also where one of my best friends held her wedding reception — a bibliophile’s perfect setting for happily ever after.
I believe educators should live where they teach. As a Highlandtown resident and Patterson High School teacher, I regularly run into my students throughout our neighborhood — including here, the youngest of our public libraries. Between its Teen Center and numerous community events, this branch ensures that my students and I see each other after school, on weekends and during the summer. Just like my grandma delighted in reading to her students, helping to instill in them an early love of literature, it thrills me when my teenagers choose to immerse themselves in books, technology and knowledge.
For almost a decade, I lived within steps of this branch before walking through its doors. Baltimore is blessed with nearly two dozen free and friendly places to not only borrow books, but access a number of other services. So rather than a lack of interest, I attribute this delay to an abundance of riches. It reminds me of tsundoku, the Japanese word for buying books you don’t read; part of me liked knowing there were still branches of our sprawling system to explore — though now that I’ve finally been, this tree-lined refuge for readers has become my go-to location. In fact, as I type this, there are books on hold waiting for me to bring home.
I’m an outspoken advocate for Baltimore, in part because of our historic library system. Enoch Pratt provides for all of our city’s residents. These libraries support us as we better ourselves; beyond granting access to information, they allow our minds to relax, our imaginations to roam and our empathy to rise. Enoch Pratt not only supports, but encourages this by making the application process for a card painless. With locations scattered across the city, we don’t even need to leave our neighborhoods — unless you’re like me, and want to collect as many of these charms as you can.