We all saw the dramatic images of the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody this past April. What many observers did not know, however, was that the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Pennsylvania Avenue Branch was at the epicenter of the protests. And through it all, the library stayed open, serving a community in need of both critical services and a safe haven. For its efforts, the library was given the first annual Tech Logic People First Award, which was presented at the opening general session of the ALA 2015 Annual Conference by a famous Baltimore native: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
On hand to accept the award, and a $5,000 donation from Tech Logic, Enoch Pratt Free Library branch manager Melanie Townsend Diggs movingly recalled the events of this past April, as a protesters approached the library. She recalled how the staff simply locked the door, telling patrons inside they were free to leave, but that they would lock the door for their safety. "We didn't make it overreactive," she said, adding that the customers did not want to leave. "The customers felt comfortable inside the branch," she noted. "And I felt like the guardian of the galaxy."
The library would make the decision to remain open in the coming days, amid the unrest, and to serve the community, recalled director Carla Hayden. "The people of Baltimore in that area came into that branch, and they said thank you for being here," Hayden said. "Believe me, you could look out the window and see all of the things happening. And this was a refuge for the people in that neighborhood. Whole Foods provided sandwiches and we started feeding children. Melanie then asked if we could provide diapers and basics because stores were not open. Next thing you know, all the kids were on their Wii machines in the meeting rooms, having fun, and really being nonchalant about all the national press right outside the door."
The actions of Baltimore's librarians was nothing unusual, Hayden told the audience, noting that the library was simply doing what libraries do. "But it renewed my faith, and my purpose about what libraries are about," Hayden said. "When they talk about the age of virtual libraries, the library as place...as place...matters."
In her lengthy talk, Pelosi heaped praise on Hayden, Townsend and Baltimore librarians, as well as the library profession at large. "As Ray Bradbury once said, without libraries, what have we? We have no past, and we have no future," Pelosi said. "Our libraries represent the highest aspirations of our communities. I believe that."
The actions of librarians in Baltimore once again underscored the strong place of libraries in their communities, and recalled the work of the Ferguson Memorial Library last year, following the unrest in that city after an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, was killed by police. Donations poured in to support the library in Ferguson, and the library was named the 2015 Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year.