Sharing an experience

Librarian: Eva Slezak has a new home for her `baby,' a black history collection that she has raised to 10,000 items.

April 13, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

The librarian, speaking softly, the way librarians do at work, says the books breathe.

They contain painful and wondrous history.

Though mostly about African-Americans, in a country where ethnic fates intertwine, they tell stories of us all -- where we were, where we are and where we may go.

"This is kind of like my baby," said Eva Slezak, referring to the African-American collection she has curated for 23 years at downtown Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Her baby, once housed in a cramped cage, "deserves its own special place," she said.

FOR THE RECORD - A front-page article in The Sun Thursday about the Enoch Pratt Free Library's African-American collection incorrectly reported the age of Eva Slezak, the curator. She is 53. The Sun regrets the error.

It will soon get one.

In October, a $50 million construction and remodeling project will begin at the central library. It will create an annex to the library, which hasn't undergone a major renovation since it was built in 1933.

The three-story addition to the classically styled building will occupy an empty space between the Pratt and the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped on Franklin Street. And it will allow the library to make good on a long-held wish: to give books on the black experience more prominence.

When construction finishes in 2002, the African-American collection -- which was started in 1969 in a steel cage tucked inside the research stacks and is now shoehorned into a wing with books on Maryland history -- will be housed in a new room of about 4,000 square foot, double the current one's size.

The new room will allow the library to boost the collection's exposure and fulfill a state mandate that the collections at Pratt's main branch be the definitive holdings for all Maryland public libraries.

What's more, the collection's trove of nearly 10,000 books and a significant passel of newspaper files, maps and other artifacts will be buffeted by a gift from one of Baltimore's prominent black families. A $150,000 grant from the estate of Jaunita Burns (whose husband, Charles T. Burns, owned the Super Pride grocery store chain) will help in buying additional materials.

Louis Fields, a historian from West Baltimore who has chronicled black life in Maryland in two books and spends countless days at the library, says the collection feels more like museum pieces: "You can touch and feel the spirit there," he says.

Fields and other historians say Slezak made this happen.

Spend time with the 63-year-old woman with baby-smooth cheeks and bright, hazel eyes, and you will see why. She combines a sensitive, warm manner with an astounding breadth of knowledge.

"She's forgotten more African-American history than most people will ever know," says Dianne Swann-Wright, director of special programs at Monticello, and one of the scores of historians and researchers nationwide who look to Slezak for guidance on Maryland's black history.

Those who have worked with Slezak might notice the irony of race for just a moment upon meeting her: she is, after all, a white woman whose life's work and great passion is black culture. Soon, when she regales you with the most delightful, the most gut-wrenching and the most tragic stories of black life, you will have forgotten skin color.

"She's just a caring human being," says Fields. "A rare breed. One who makes you forget about color while opening your eyes to it."

She is a librarian, keen and aware, so Slezak already knew a good deal about black history when she began. Still, heading the collection meant she would dive reading glasses first into the culture.

"It wasn't hard for me to have a feel for the culture," she says, noting that growing up enmeshed in the ways of two Czech parents, and with a disability -- she was stricken with polio as a child, and has limited use of her left arm -- sensitized her.

"I always had a feeling for what it was like to be the outsider," says Slezak. "And I never bought into some of the same stuff that much of America buys into regarding people of color."

She stands in the darkened cage where the African-American collection started; a space about 4 feet by 12 feet, with floor-to-ceiling shelving and the slightly stale smell of old books and paper.

She picks through the rare and delicate African-American books the library stores there to keep them from being damaged or stolen, and slides out two of her favorites.

First, The Story of the Jubilee Singers, olive-green hardback, embossed in gold, first printed in the 1880. "A true work of art," says Slezak, describing the book's subject: Fisk University's gospel choir and the slave hymnals that were nearly forgotten until the choir cataloged and performed them.

Then, The Underground Railroad by William Still, first published in 1872: stories of slaves escaping bondage. "People taking fate in their own hands," says Slezak, who was raised in the Pennsylvania Quaker country where many of the stories unfolded.

She walks into the Maryland room, where most of the collection resides.

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