If you’ve passed the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues lately, then you’ve caught a glimpse of the new look that Pratt Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue Branch 17 is sporting.

The nearly two-story tall image on the front window of a young Black girl clad in a vividly colored, lime-green dress, sitting cross-legged while reading a book, is pretty hard to miss. What you can’t see are the extensive interior cosmetic enhancements and technological upgrades the branch has undergone.

When Branch 17 held its eagerly anticipated soft opening Nov. 2, after being closed for nearly three months, a gathering of 20-30 enthusiastic patrons lined up outside its doors, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to put their community library back to good use. They were not disappointed.

Freshly painted, with new carpeting and signage and an inspiring cityscape on the wall behind the circulation desk, the library’s new look sparkles. But the real icing on the cake came with the increased number of computers and enhanced computer lab, books borrowed on eReaders, a dedicated career center, hot-spot tables, an overhead projector, improvements to the areas for children and pre-schoolers and other goodies.

According to Willie Johnson, Penn’s branch manager since 2008, would-be patrons of the branch, which usually see 420 to 430 visitors a day, had been knocking on the door, tapping on windows and peering inside the covered entryway and windows since it closed. He was just as happy as they were to be back at his home branch.

“Penn has always been a piece of me. I love the branch. I love the people. I love the service that we provide for the community,” revealed Johnson, who was first assigned to Penn as its young adult librarian in 2001.

Located at the pinnacle of Pennsylvania Avenue, Branch 17, which opened at that location in 1953, has served as a beacon in the community to generations of patrons. Kathryn Waters’ memories date back to visits to the branch between 1954 and 1961. She recalls visiting for story hour in her pre-school years, serving as her class’ library aide in third grade and learning the Dewey Decimal System. Waters, who is now vice president for member services at the American Public Transportation Association and a grandmother, also remembers getting her first library card.

“That was very exciting, as it meant I could choose my own books. The librarians treated us little folks just the same as the big folks; they took every question seriously, and did not mind taking the time to help me find something special to add to my stack of books,” she explained.

Through the years, Penn’s services to the community have grown. The branch collaborates with organizations like the Creative Alliance, American Visionary Art Museum and Jubilee Arts to provide activities for children and adults, and Penn also holds GED (general educational development) classes through a partnership with Baltimore Reads. There are e-reader clinics, computer classes, a chess club and the Black Renaissance Book Club. Plus, the branch screens movies on Saturdays.

It is truly a community library, which is largely attributed to the influence of its former branch manager, the late Betty Boulware.

Penn’s office supervisor, Marsella Oglesby, who also worked with Boulware at the Forest Park Branch for nearly eight years explained, “She wanted the library to always be a bright spot in the community. Mrs. Boulware set a very good example of how the staff should behave and how the customers should behave. She made clients feel important. She was good with the community, and she had a very high interest in people.”

If Boulware set the standard, then Johnson and his staff can be credited with keeping it alive. Members of the community love the branch and the services that it offers. And when their branch began to experience a growing state of disrepair, they complained and set the wheels in motion for the recently completed work to be done.

After the branch’s Nov. 14 grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the hoopla may quiet down but the excitement of the patrons is expected to remain high. They will still be getting used to the new features like the Overdrive Media Station, which will have a listing of all of the library’s e-books, and they will have plenty of questions, library officials said.

Willie Johnson is looking forward to hearing those questions and providing answers. An admiration for librarians’ ability to get questions answered is what drew him into the field, he said.

“People come in with all types of questions, and it’s my job as a librarian to be able to answer those questions. So, whether it’s something that deals with e-books or computers or a reference question, if I can’t give it to you right then and there, I’ll take your number and we’ll get back to you with the answer. We have the answers, and you get smarter. Every day, you learn something new,” explained Johnson.

Comments from the Community

George Stanford, 35
“I live near Reisterstown and Coldspring. It’s very convenient for me. I could go to Loch Raven, but I’d rather come to this one. I lived around here, and I know it. It’s good for the community. A lot of young people come here, and it’s a helpful tool for the community. I like it. I like the way it looks, and sometimes, I bring my children to let them read books and use the computers. I hope they’re getting more books. I prefer them to computers. Computer screen give me a headache. Plus, I’m old-fashioned and learn better from books.”

Allen Johnson, 60
“I come to this library because it’s a very nice library. The people who operate the library are very respectful. If you don’t know or don’t understand, they will help you. So, I come because I get a lot out of the library. I’ve been coming here for 14-16 years. They’re remodeling, and that’s okay by me. I’m just waiting so I can come right back up in here. I use the library for cultural research to discover more about my culture. I come every day and bring my 13-year-old grandson so he can do his homework and use the computer.”

Bridgette Lawrence, 50
“I come to this library at least three times a week. I have great-nephews and nieces that my mom is raising, and we don’t have the Internet in the house. A lot of their work requires that they use the Internet. So, I bring them so they can get their reports. They are so excited to come in and check their books out. Everybody is responsible. I think it is great, especially in this community.There are a lot of elementary schools around, and a lot of people in this area are low-income and can’t afford the Internet. So they give the kids who don’t have it  the same opportunity as the kids that do. It’s such a great resource, and this library has a lot of activities for kids, too. You don’t want your kids running around on the corners and out here in
the street. Bring them to the library.”

Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO