Late in 1881, Enoch Pratt, a Baltimore merchant, financier, and philanthropist, broke ground for the city's first free public circulating library. On January 21, 1882, Pratt wrote to the mayor and city council starting his intention to erect a library and offering it to the city, a proposal accepted along with the $50 thousand annuity established as a condition of the gift. In March 1882 the state legislature incorporated the first board of trustees for the library and in October of the same year the voters approved the library issue by a large majority.
Construction of the central library was completed two years later and the building was formally transferred to the trustees on October 1, 1884. The following month Dr. Lewis H. Steiner was appointed head librarian and the formal organization of the Enoch Pratt Free Library began.
The library opened to the public on January 5, 1886 and within two months, the four branches, for which Pratt had also donated funds, began operations. At the end of the first year, these five libraries had a total of 45,109 volumes on their shelves and 25,963 registered borrowers; circulation totalled 410,215.
From these auspicious beginnings the library continued to grow and expand its services. This necessitated the construction of a new and larger central facility, completed in 1933 on the site of the original building, and the addition of branches throughout the city; at present, the extension division consists of thirty-two branch agencies and the bookmobile service, inaugurated in 1949. The library's patrons also benefitted from the opening of the Maryland and audio-visual departments; the initiation of deliveries of library materials to home-bound borrowers; the deposit of the papers of H.L. Mencken; the merger of the George Peabody Library of rare books and genealogical information into the Pratt system from 1966 to 1982; and the designation of the Pratt as the state library resource center.
At present the Enoch Pratt Free Library sustains a reputation as one of the most innovative and highly respected urban library systems in the United States.
For additional information about the library see Philip Arthur Kalisch, The Enoch Pratt Free Library; A Social History (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1969) which also includes an excellent bibliography; the library's annual reports; and the publicity scrapbooks maintained in the Pratt's public relations office. There is also an extensive list of sources in the query file in the Maryland department. References in ordinances or resolutions are usually for appropriation purposes.
A list of the library's directors is appended.
Researchers should note that all records here described remain in the Pratt system. Their location, in the various departments or offices, is indicated at the end of each series description. For further information concerning these materials, contact the city archivist or the chief-of the central library.