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Charmed Life

Bust This!

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/15/2001

On one shelf sits German historian Hartmann Schedel's mammoth world history, Buch Der Chroniken von 1493, which debuted a year after Christopher Columbus stumbled upon North America. The weighty tome includes more than 600 woodblock illustrations and is considered the first major illustrated printed book in the world. The German text is amazingly crisp and clear. The ink is midnight black. Reading it, you have to keep reminding yourself, Oh yeah, this came off a press more than 500 years ago.

Not far away sits a lone sheet of notebook paper--a poem titled "Library Rap" written in a 14-year-old's loose, ballpoint-pen scrawl and containing the line, "Yo Enoch Pratt, bust this!" At the top of the page, in the same youthful hand, is the author's name: Tupac A. Shakur. "Library Rap" was the winning entry in a rap contest the Enoch Pratt Free Library ran in 1985. Though known largely as a West Coast gangsta rapper, the late Shakur was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent part of his childhood in Baltimore (he went to high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts). He and his "East-Side Crew" won a $100 prize for their performance of this props-to-the-Pratt rap.

Welcome to what most Enoch Pratt librarians simply call "the Vault." It's a fitting name for the tiny room, perhaps 8 feet by 8 feet, behind a stout metal door emblazoned with the legend york safe & lock co. But another moniker for the little-known space tucked away on the central library's second floor would be appropriate too: the Most Amazing Room in Baltimore. The Pratt is blessed with a plethora of good stuff--rare books, documents, artifacts--but beyond the Vault's weighty, locked door (only a few library employees know the combination to the lock) is where they keep the really good stuff, more than half a millennium's worth.

Helping me traipse through the treasures are John Sondheim, the Pratt's planning manager, and Vivian Fisher, who runs the library's African-American and Special Collections Department. The pair pull all manner of amazing items from the musty, shelf-lined Vault. Sondheim hands me a small gold frame containing a lock of Edgar Allan Poe's hair (as well as a lock from his cousin/wife Virginia). Fisher brandishes an original 1773 edition of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects.

"She was the first African-American published poet," Fisher says. "I'd estimate this book is worth between $15,000 to $25,000." Incredibly, the Pratt has two copies of this rare book (written while Wheatley was a slave). Even more incredible, when Fisher came on board a year ago, she discovered that one of the copies was circulating--you could just check it out like you would the latest Danielle Steele bodice ripper.

Then it's Sondheim's turn. He produces a slim volume called A Relation of Maryland. "It's a promotional piece to encourage people to come to Maryland," Sondheim says. "It's early marketing."

How early? It was printed in London in 1635. (Sondheim describes the volume as "heavy-duty rare.") Fisher comes back with more African-American items, including a 1796 edition of Benjamin Banneker's storied Almanac and two grizzly pre-emancipation artifacts: an 1845 bill of sale for Elizabeth, a "Negro girl" (she went for $300), and a wanted poster offering a $500 reward for Lizzie, a runaway slave ("medium-sized, age 28") from the Eastern Shore.

When I poke my head inside the Vault, I encounter personal items of library benefactor and namesake Enoch Pratt, including his walking stick and ink well. More than a dozen fat, leather-bound volumes loom on an upper shelf; printed on their spines is the title H.L. Mencken's Diary. Poe is everywhere: Besides the snippet of his dark locks, the room holds some of the brooding bard's original poems, manuscripts, and correspondence, even a piece of his coffin. Not far from Shakur's early hip-hop effort sits a composition of another sort, a first edition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, circa 1826.

When she began working at the Pratt, Fisher says, "I didn't know the library had all these treasures. I was just blown away."

Sadly, few other folks know that these rare items--mostly gifts to the library--reside on Cathedral Street either. Happily, this might change. After a planned new wing is added to the Central Library, Sondheim and Fisher say, they hope the building will have the room and specialized facilities to publicly display some of the treasures, at least on a rotating basis.

For now, however, only the odd visiting scholar (or nosy journalist) gets to see the Vault's valuables. They just sit alone in the dark--another amazing aspect of the city's sadly underfunded and often underappreciated library system. Or, in the words of pre-Thug Life Tupac: "Hey citizens of Baltimore the Enoch Pratt Library/ is an open door to life and pleasures of all kind/ for people of our world to develop our minds."

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