History: The Pratt Library in World War II

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By Jeff Korman

Baltimore, a city capable of major industrial production, was key to military preparedness during World War II. Thousands went to work each day in the shipyards and steel mills, yet everyone in the country was called upon to do whatever necessary to help win the War. The numbers of volunteers and the mobilization that went on in this area is astounding. Beginning in 1942 everyone in their way contributed to the War effort. Perhaps lost in the stories of the crowded USO’s, the air raids, rationing and the general disruption to everyday life was the part played by the Enoch Pratt Free Library in the War.

Joseph Wheeler, Library Director, noted in his 1940-41 report to the Library Board that the general feeling among staff was reflected in the comment of one branch librarian who declared "Let us all take a hitch in our belts and make books more useful to win the war".

Sure, books were an important part of the effort. Photographs of the prominent Cathedral Street display windows show the Library promoting books to aid every facet of the effort.

Yet the Library staffer’s involvement went way beyond promoting reading. To name two:

  • Pratt Libraries were among the more than 300 air raid shelters in Baltimore City.
  • Pratt Library staff were responsible for preparing the official leaflets distributed by the Office of Civilian Defense that were necessary to educate the public regarding safety and how to handle other wartime concerns.

In April 1942 Mayor Howard Jackson sent a letter to the Library’s Board of Trustees outlining his concern that too many Americans take the liberties, opportunities and blessings of our country for granted. He went on to say:

Events of the past few years, however, have plunged us into a war, on the outcome of which depends our ability to preserve our American institutions. ...the time has come to re-examine our institutions of government; the liberties, privileges and rights that American citizens enjoy.

The Pratt Library’s response to this plea was the creation of a reading list that outlined a course in citizenship.  But wait, there’s more!
The list was the basis of a familiar wartime theme—a reward for those at home who supported the Allies effort during the hostilities. Anyone who read at least six books (or twelve articles or pamphlets) would receive a certificate of achievement in the Citizenship Education Course.
It worked much like today’s summer reading programs:

  • Anyone of any age could enroll.
  • The course must be finished within six months
  • The enrollee would go to any library, fill out a registration card with their intention to complete the course and the topic they selected.
  • The card would be taken to a librarian to discuss the topic and get the books or reading material.  The librarian was empowered to allow the registrant to select books not on the list if they deemed them appropriate.
  • When the reader returned the book to the branch the librarian or an assistant were to ask questions necessary to assure that the material had actually been read!

When the course was completed, the librarian "will scrutinize the record and attest to completion of the course."

It truly was a world unlike anything we have to endure today. If you find this period interesting stop by the Maryland Department in the Central Library. We have plenty to show you!

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