A good name that lives on

September 17, 1996|By Fred B. Shoken

''A good name is better than precious ointment and the day of death [better] than the day of birth.'' Ecclesiastes 7: 1 ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago today Enoch Pratt died. A century later his name lives on in an institution revered by Baltimore citizens.

At the opening of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in 1886, the mayor of Baltimore, James Hodges, stated:

''When years shall have passed away; . . . when this city has doubled in population, and this library, always growing, offers to the Baltimore of another century the works of authors now unborn; when science shall have realized some of its proudest hopes, and answers have been found to some of the enigmas which now perplex mankind; while all the time this institution has RTC been faithful to its duty of disseminating among the people whatever is best in human thought, then let a balance-sheet be struck and an estimate of this great benefaction be made up, then let some Baltimorean of the 20th century . . , seeing clearly the past as I see dimly the future, remind his fellow citizens what they owe to Enoch Pratt.''

Let us remember Enoch Pratt. While other philanthropists have founded world-renowned institutions (such as the Peabody Institute, Walters Art Gallery and Johns Hopkins University and Hospital), none has had a greater impact on local residents than the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

His library caters to both the learned and common man. It allows all of us to learn from the greatest minds in history and enjoy the pure joy of reading. Without charging a fee, each of us can visit the library and take out virtually any book to bring home for our private enjoyment and edification.

The legacy continues

With more than 200,000 card holders, millions of books inscribed with the name Enoch Pratt, and more than two dozen library branches throughout Baltimore neighborhoods, the name Enoch Pratt has now lasted a century after the man Enoch Pratt has died. Pratt's legacy to Baltimore continues. His name should be revered as much today as it was praiseworthy during his lifetime.

Pratt had the foresight to create an institution while he was still alive in order to set a pattern for future directors and trustees. He drove a hard bargain with city fathers, agreeing to endow the library with $1,250,000 on the condition that the city would contribute $50,000 to the library each year for all time, thereby insuring that the city would invest more in his library in the future, than he could ever provide.

He required that the services provided by the library be free of charge forever, endearing himself to future generations. And he allowed all citizens without regard to race or color to use his library, a noteworthy accomplishment in 19th-century Baltimore.

Although childless, Pratt has helped generations of children to read, to learn and to grow. He has touched generations he never had a chance to see and those yet unborn. In many ways, everyone who has ever visited a Pratt library, borrowed a Pratt library book or used one of its myriad services is a child of Enoch Pratt, having benefited from his generousity.

In Western culture we are inclined to celebrate the date of one's birth, but in other traditions, specifically Judaism, it is the anniversary of one's death that is remembered. At a person's birth we know nothing of what the person will become. Only after one has died can we truly understand his full value through his accomplishments.

On this 100th anniversary of Enoch Pratt's death, we should celebrate what this one man accomplished in his life and the legacy he provided to future generations. The fact that his institution has lasted a hundred years after his death is a testament to him and to those he personally selected to care for his library.

Whether the Enoch Pratt Free Library will endure as well for another century will say a great deal about ourselves and our ability to utilize this precious gift which Enoch Pratt gave to all the people of Baltimore.

Fred B. Shoken is a historian.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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