For poet Shapiro, Pratt was a place that led everywhere THE PRATT UNDER PRESSURE

January 05, 1992|By Tim Warren

In 1945, a small volume of poetry by Baltimore native Karl Shapiro won the Pulitzer Prize. In it was a poem entitled "Public Library." It was a song of love, from a man who loved books, to the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Published in "V-Letter and Other Poems," it began this way:

Voltaire would weep for Joy, Plato would stare.

What is it, easier than a church to enter,

Politer than a department store, this center

That like Grand Central leads to everywhere?

"I was a student at the Pratt Library training school in 1940," said the poet -- the only man in a class with 30 women.

"I was two months from finishing the yearlong course when I got drafted. I've always regretted not finishing it."

Mr. Shapiro was 27 at the time. He is now 78, and he remembers his training at the Pratt as "the most intense, advanced scholarship and bibliography that I had ever experienced."

In his 1988 autobiography, "The Younger Son," he described the librarian he aspired to be: ". . . the keeper of the books was the supreme bibliophile who had to know everything about the book, from the time of the papyri to the output of McGraw-Hill, from incunabula to the Book-of-the-Month Club and the names of thousands of encyclopedias in use at this very moment."

And he recalls the huge influence the new central library had.

"You have to remember what the impression of most libraries was in those days -- unreachable, its resources not available to the general public," says Mr. Shapiro, who now lives in New York. "It was the first open-stack library. It was internationally famous -- we had visitors like [former British Prime Minister] Anthony Eden.

"And it was a beautiful place. You could sit down in armchairs and smoke while you read."

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