Thursday, January 30, 2020

Pratt's libraries: Common ground in a divided society

In this election season and the simplified campaign talks there is little good being said about Baltimore, except that every candidate confesses to loves it for all its flaws.

So it is necessary to point out from time to time, that not all is bad. I often remark that the only local public service that works real well is Baltimore's Parking Authority, especially the ticketing of parking scofflaws. But there is at least one other public system that deserves high praise and that is Baltimore's Enoch Pratt library system.
The refurbished main hall of the Pratt Main Branch
(Photo: Philipsen)

How much that is so became clear to me when I attended a talk about libraries on the foreign soil of the Finnish Embassy in Washington. Under the title "Mind Building" it called attention to Finnish library architecture and the related library exhibit in the embassy gleaned from the Finnish pavilion of the 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

The embassy had convened a high powered talking panel including Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Executive Director of the D.C. Public Library, Michael A. Wiencek Jr., founder of Wiencek + Associates Architects, and Roswell Encinca, Chief Communications Officer of the Library of Congress. From Finland attended Tommi Laitio, City of Helsinki’s Executive Director of Culture and Leisure, and Hanna Harris, Director of Archinfo Finland and Commissioner of the exhibition.

My insight into how well Baltimore compares came when the panelists began talking less about architecture and more about active citizenship, freedom of speech, equality, inclusion and civic engagement.

Seen through that lens, architecture became just the shell that empowered such notions; even the book was no longer the main vehicle to drive these services. Tommi Laitio reminded the American audience that it was Andrew Carnegie who said  libraries are "the palaces for the people.” Laitio said: "Quality and beauty are civil rights. He noted that libraries are often valued in principle but rarely visited. "We wanted to change that", he said, a true to his portfolio started selling sports tickets in the library. He passionately said: “We need libraries to be side by side with other people that are not like us."
Branch library Canton (Pratt photo)

So how does Baltimore come in here?

Firstly, Enoch Pratt who laid the foundation for one of the first public library systems in the country was like Carnegie a wealthy business man with a heavy bent for philanthropy. (In fact, Carnegie donated to the Pratt system in 1905 to build 20 new library branches).
Then there was Laitio who echoed exactly what Baltimore's library system director Carla Hayden had promoted for 23 years. In that period libraries have gone from places that were "hush-hush" and housed collections of books to being community centers that provide access to a variety of media or provide community services that are entirely beyond media. Thus, the Pratt has traditional story times for children and hosts book groups but is also a place for yoga and meditation sessions, art workshops, and educational classes for all kinds of people, including those who don't care about books. In that the library has become one of the few places that cuts effortlessly across all classes and races. This is also an explanation why libraries around the world haven't lost their attraction, even though the book as a medium has so much competition.
Panelist at Finnish Embassy talk about libraries

Hayden, of course, went on to become the CEO of the largest library in the world., the library of Congress, where she brings the same concept of openness and service to this revered institution.

And as if this wasn't enough, Hayden's communication director Roswell Encinca sat right there on the panel and talked how the Library of Congress was now devoting itself to those same exact principles. He was previously Hayden's communication director in Baltimore and hired again by her once she moved on to Washington three years ago.

And as far as architecture:  Baltimore's central library, since 1933 right across from Latrobe's Cathedral and not far from the Peabody, is a wonderful and freshly refurbished flagship. (Its $115 million renovation was completed late last year). Many branches aspire to the same historic "palace" tradition, but some of the total 21 branches are well designed modern interpretations of the library as a place of community. In 2015 during the unrest following the  death of Freddie Grey, the Pratt at Penn and North served as a safe place while the intersection right in front was the ground central of the demonstrations.
Carla Hayden and President Obama
(Pratt photo)

The idea of library as a community service and "Mind Building" exercise is also carried forth in contributions of the Weinberg Foundation and 30 partners (including the Pratt Library system) towards 24 excellent libraries in Baltimore's new or refurbished 21 st century schools.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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