Starting a new chapter

Hopkins: The George Peabody Library reopens with a renewed emphasis on its public mission.

May 11, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

If Dean Winston Tabb has his way, the George Peabody Library will once again be an open book to the public, just as it was in the beginning.

Tabb, dean of university libraries at the Johns Hopkins University, oversees the soaring six-story library that houses an extensive collection of rare books and opens its doors today after an almost two-year renovation.

"It's exhilarating," Tabb said before a Saturday night gala to celebrate the reopening. "We'll see how it works when it's used intensively. The initial idea was, `Let's open it up and see what happens.'"

By the time the Peabody - with its cast-iron balconies, decorative pillars and a collection of 300,000 historical volumes - closed to the public in 2002, it had faded from the city's cultural landscape. Instead, it had become better known as a special events and wedding venue.

During the upgrade, Tabb had some time to rethink the place of the Peabody Library in Baltimore's everyday life and, as a result, he and Cynthia H. Requardt, curator of special collections, decided to steer the institution back toward the original concept of an open library. The number of social functions held there will be trimmed to about 40 a year.

The library's rededicated 21st-century mission is more in line with the vision of its original patron, George Peabody, who started his free library to encourage the port city to educate and improve itself. The grand reading room with its latticed skylight opened in 1878 preceding even the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which started in the 1880s.

"This library was given to the citizens of Baltimore and we respect that," Requardt said yesterday. "The volumes are awaiting people to come and read them."

The most striking change was as simple as opening a long-locked door to Mount Vernon Place, making the building's marble edifice more friendly to people who pass by. The library's upgrade was in concert with a renovation at the Peabody Institute - a neighboring but separate institution.

For some, the changes come none too soon.

"It hasn't been respected as a library for too long," said Stephen Amrhein, an administrative assistant at the institute who will give tours of the Peabody complex during tomorrow's Flower Mart. "I'm delighted they're committing to bringing it back into Baltimore's consciousness."

The library's volumes are mostly from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but the collection also includes medieval preprinting press manuscripts and early 20th-century books, including a signed one from H.L. Mencken, known as the Sage of Baltimore.

The library, which is no longer acquiring volumes, narrowly escaped a disastrous loss last year when a pipe leak caused water damage to 8,000 precious volumes, which had to be specially treated in a freeze-drying process by a restoration company in upstate New York.

The stacks are closed to circulation, but books may be requested and handled within the library. To make readers feel at home, some original mahogany reading "gallery" desks will be brought out, allowing at least a dozen at a time to sit.

The room outside the library, where the card catalogs used to stand, is freshly painted and houses an exhibit on George Peabody and the library's treasures. Some of the books on display are by English Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and Maryland's Benjamin Banneker, who published early American almanacs.

"It invites the city, as an exhibit hall for residents and visitors to the city," said Stacie Spence, a development employee for the university libraries system.

At Saturday's black-tie dinner, actor John Astin donned period costume and played the part of George Peabody accompanied by Scottish music. Pamela L. Higgins, who works in external relations at Hopkins, said, "It was as if [Peabody] was giving the dinner party."

Civil rights historian Taylor Branch was among a list of literary guests that included newspaper columnist Russell Baker and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein. Baltimore artist Greg Otto also headed a table.

Referring to the library staff's dedication to make the Peabody more welcoming, Branch said, "The librarians ... [are] determined to make people more aware this is a public facility."

"It was awe-inspiring to be in that room," Branch added. "I'd love an excuse to work there."

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