After the riots, a library in Baltimore becomes the community’s core

Man wearing hat walking past men in riot gear standing outside a building (Getty Images/Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
A Baltimore resident and National Guardsmen outside the Enoch Pratt Free Library (Getty Images/Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Residents of West Baltimore get more than just books at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Maryland. It is a place of comfort for a community that a year ago was rocked by violence.

On April 27, 2015, riots surrounded the library’s branch on Pennsylvania Avenue. Before things quieted, 15 police officers had been injured, cars had been burned and stores looted. Inside the library, staff and patrons watched as protesters set fire to a large drugstore across the street.

Civic unrest had been bubbling since the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American who had died from a spinal cord injury while in police custody. Gray died after black men had died in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York during altercations with police. In West Baltimore, tensions erupted after Gray’s funeral.

It was late on that April evening before police told the library patrons and staff it was safe to go home. By then the governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to help police keep order.

But the library opened the next morning.

Melanie Diggs, branch manager of the library, had made a late-night call to the Baltimore library system’s chief, Carla Hayden, the new librarian of Congress. The two women agreed on the reasons to stay open.

“We have people who just like to come in because it’s a safe, quiet place,” said Diggs. “We have programs that go on during the week for the youth and adults. Those are the kind of things we were thinking about.” In fact, she says, a man who came in to use the computers to look for a job that day landed an important interview.

Melanie Townsend Diggs sitting in front of library shelves (© AP Images)
Melanie Diggs at the Enoch Pratt Free Library (© AP Images)

During the recovery from the riots, the library’s role expanded further:

  • It became the distribution point for food donated by a national grocery store chain for locals and law enforcement officers as the neighborhood recovered.
  • The library distributed diapers, baby formula and other essentials that local residents couldn’t get from the burned-down drugstore.
  • A small-business center opened in the library to help affected store owners apply for disaster relief.
  • The library started offering one-on-one legal consultations for the community, which continue to this day.

Diggs says that the library is “becoming known as a place where people in the community can come to not only check out books, but to be connected to resources they need.”