For more than a century, the Enoch Pratt Free Library has been building a record of the universe, from the Big Bang to the edition of The Sun you are now reading.
Along the way, it has amassed a treasury of things wonderful, things rare, and things rarely used.
The Pratt has an original decree from King Charles II of England to the Calvert family about the territory that became Maryland, and the document in which, on Dec. 10, 1829, Edgar Allan Poe brokered the sale of a 20-year-old slave from his aunt Maria Clemm to a man named Henry Ridgway.
It preserves a snippet of hair from Poe's dark and mysterious head; a lock from Virginia Clemm, his teen-age bride and first cousin; a tiny Arabic copy of the Koran, and a 1935 limited edition of James Joyce's "Ulysses" with illustrations by Henri Matisse.
Said veteran Pratt librarian Wesley Wilson: "Other librarians have said to me: 'You mean you actually let somebody handle that material?' "
The answer is yes. "But they have to have some serious reason for doing it," said Averil Kadis, the Pratt's director of public relations, and the items may be encased in plastic.
That is the beauty of the Pratt library, by law the official resource center for Maryland and by custom Baltimore's attic, the place where local collectors of peculiarities from war posters to restaurant menus have unloaded their goodies before they passed away.
"If you can find the tools and parts for a 1937 Studebaker, we can tell you how to fix it," said Pratt director Anna Curry, who presides over a system of 2,217,000 titles that includes repair manuals for every American car made since 1935.
At the central library on Cathedral Street, you can find out how to pickle pig's feet, or trace your Eastern Shore genealogy back to the 17th century or see what Miller Bros. restaurant was charging for a buffalo steak in 1958.
In the Pratt's network of neighborhood branches, you can take lTC your child to hear a librarian read a story, or have a copy of the sheet music to "I Am the Walrus" by the Beatles faxed to you from downtown. You can borrow books on how to start a business if things are going well, or file for bankruptcy if the end has come.
And if all you are able to do with all of this information is look at the pictures, the Pratt will help you learn to read.
An advocate for literacy before Kurt L. Schmoke learned to write his name, the Pratt taught English to European immigrants in "Americanization" classes during the 1930s and '40s and began staffing a literacy office in 1976.
Last May, it devoted an entire branch to helping Americans learn to read English.
The special character of the library's collection was nourished for three decades through the middle of the century by the Pratt's legendary director, Joseph L. Wheeler, who never flinched from buttonholing Baltimore bibliophiles to turn over their books, artifacts and oddities.
At the same time, Richard Hart, the former chief of the language and literature department, was amassing an unrivaled collection contemporary poetry from the plethora of short-lived literary journals that passed across the American scene.
"He had the latest books and magazines, and they were always prominently displayed. He helped stimulate me as a writer," said Karl Shapiro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet born in Baltimore.
The collection was also used by writers and poets like Adrienne Rich, Josephine Jacobsen, Julien Green, and Ogden Nash, who depended on the Pratt for what it did best: storing and retrieving eclectic minutia about life on Earth for anyone curious enough to ask for it.
"If you know about it, you can have access to it," said Mrs. Curry.
But even the Pratt doesn't have access to everything that has come its way.
The library is certain that is has an unpublished William Faulkner manuscript called "The Husband," but the staff can't find it, and some of them say they've never seen it.
The oddments that can be retrieved on a moment's notice, however, are staggering: There are schedules and programs from the glory days of the Baltimore Colts; 5,000 pieces of sheet music; phone books and city directories if you want to know at what address your grandfather's gin mill served beer and boiled eggs before Prohibition; ledgers from insurance companies listing the arrival of steamers from Cuba to Baltimore's North Point during the Civil War.
On Valentine's Day, people come to look at the library's collection of greeting cards from the turn of the century. On Armistice Day, history buffs could make a trip to see its collection of canvas and paper war posters from World War I. "The depth and range of the collection -- that's what's distinctive about the Pratt," Mrs. Kadis said, on the last day of 1991. "In fact, the Smithsonian called me yesterday for an issue of an 1893 magazine that they simply couldn't get in Washington."
Those items are contained in a quarter-million square feet of storage along with a picture book from 15th-century Germany that includes what is believed to be the first printed map of that area; more than 1 million documents printed by the government of the United States that take up 54,000 feet of shelf space; an autographed picture card of Jules Verne and over 110,000 maps, including originals by Captain John Smith.
Such bounty leads many searchers to the Pratt after they've looked elsewhere in vain. "For many, we are the public library of last resort in the state," said Mrs. Curry.
But for many others it is no longer the library of first resort.
"I can count on the Pratt to have all the older materials I need," said Paula Montgomery, who teaches library science at Western Maryland College.
"But if you want to get something current it's much harder because it's a malnourished system. When you're sick, you concentrate on surviving."