The Library That’s Writing a New Chapter for Baltimore

Updated: Jun. 08, 2021

Find out why 20 minutes in this library can literally change someone's life.

Editor’s Note: The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, was selected as one of Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Places in America in 2018Meet the winner, find out how the finalists were selected, and hear from our chief judge, Robin Roberts.

Courtesy Enoch Pratt Free Library
Enoch Pratt is something of a community center, but books are its beating heart.

Meet Tyrone Burns and Thomas Hidgon. Burns, a 35-year-old Baltimore resident, just lost his job as a sports coordinator for a youth program after his employer discovered his checkered past: six charges and three traffic tickets, according to the Baltimore Sun. So, he went to Enoch Pratt Free Library.

There, Burns was able to speak with a Legal Aid attorney at the Lawyer in the Library clinic, who helped him scrub his record. With his second chance, Burns got a job working in fitness.

Hidgon used to be homeless, and he, too, went to the library. “I spent most days at the Pratt tweaking my resume and applying for jobs,” he said. “I would take breaks from the job hunt and just read whatever looked interesting. It was such a wonderful place to spend the day. It helped me maintain my dignity and sanity until I got back on my feet.”

If Enoch Pratt doesn’t sound like your typical library, that’s because it’s not. Already a beloved institution in a city ravaged by some of the highest rates of violent crime and murder in the nation, Enoch Pratt has become a haven and an important community services center.

Those seeking help range from veterans who can’t navigate their way through the complicated benefits system to folks who got into trouble with the law and aren’t sure how to move forward. Some weeks, 600 or 700 people show up.

“Just five to 20 minutes of a lawyer’s time can literally change someone’s life,” says Amy Petkovsek, the Legal Aid Society lawyer who runs the program.

More than 200 volunteers, including local lawyers doing pro bono work and law students, help staff Lawyer in the Library. The program, which started in 2015, offers free advice for everyone and has quickly become a lifeline. One woman used Lawyer in the Library to escape an abusive husband. “Because she knew the lawyers would be in the library, she asked his permission to come that day,” Petkovsek says. “Now the woman is safely in a shelter program.”

About 60 percent of what the lawyers see is related to expunging criminal records—removing old, minor offenses, for example, or excising charges that were filed but for which the person was never convicted.

“In many cases, we can clear a person’s entire record,” Petkovsek told On the Record, a public radio show.

Shannon Powell had a record going back to 1986. “It looks kinda bad,” she admits, “but that’s not me.” People didn’t want to hire her, she says, until Lawyer in the Library helped wipe her slate clean. “Now I have a job where I work with 12 homeless women,” she says proudly. “When I see them, it gives me the ability to give them the same love that Miss Amy gave me the day I walked into that library.”

Other libraries offer similar services, all struggling, like Enoch Pratt, to stay relevant to their communities in the Internet era. Precious few also offer the library’s newest innovative service: access to social workers.

One social worker was able to help a gentleman learn how to read. He stood up during a group session and told everyone that he was able to pay a bill on time because he could read what the bill said. He then proceeded to read aloud from a children’s book. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “These stories happen every day inside the Pratt,” says Meghan McCorkell, the library’s director of marketing and communications and its Nicest Places nominator.

People around the country are starting to notice what sets Enoch Pratt apart. The library recently won the Power of Libraries award for libraries bringing change to their communities, given in recognition for the library’s Mobile Job Center. It’s a bus that travels the city offering the same kind of job assistance you can find at branches: computer terminals, dedicated staff, and resources specific to job seeking in areas where the bus travels.

It’s that bus that gave Ronald Brooks his second chance. “I was out of work for six months before the mobile job center,” he says. “Now I’m working as a prep cook at an art school.”

As far as books go, don’t worry, you can check those out at Enoch Pratt too. But as of this year, if you’re late on returning them, you won’t have to pay an overdue fine. Now that’s nice.