Arts & Culture

Place of Possibilities

New Enoch Pratt head Heidi Daniel brings passion and vision to the city’s evolving library system.
Heidipratt 032 Myers
Christopher Myers

Sunlight beams through huge glass windows at the Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown on an autumn afternoon as personnel gather to give Heidi Daniel, the new president and CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library, a branch tour. Daniel winds her way through the building while actively listening to the needs and concerns of staff there—what’s working (the outdoor reading garden), what’s not (the windows need something that attracts people from the street), what’s on their wish list (could the former cafeteria be transformed into a maker space?).

“How’s your collection of Spanish-language material?” Daniel asks as she roams through the children’s area in cranberry-red platform heels that add a couple inches to her small stature. “Is it easy for people to get access to cards?”

Daniel, 43, radiates energy and enthusiasm, which, in the role of overseeing 22 library branches across Baltimore City, is needed. But she’s also warm and down to earth, saying hello to staff along the way and introducing herself to new hires.

When passing by the front counter, Daniel leans down until she’s at eye-level with a little girl and boy who stand side-by-side with an older gentleman. “Whatcha got there?” she asks them, beaming. “Are you gonna get some books to take home today?”

The children smile bashfully back at her and then, with the whole library before them, set off to explore new worlds.

When Daniel was growing up in Michigan, the public library was a sacred place. Reading was a way for her to immerse herself in worlds and ideas that she wouldn’t experience otherwise. As the adopted and only child of blue-collar parents—a factory-worker father and a stay-at-home mother—books became a major influence on her life.

“My parents really wanted me to have the opportunity to pursue higher education and be well-educated,” Daniel says, sitting inside her rowhome in Bolton Hill, where she recently moved with her husband and two children. “My mom thought that if I loved to read, then I’d love to learn, so her plan was to take me to the public library. I have all these early memories of picking out books, and the best part was that ability to select things on my own, without limitations. It was never, ‘No, we can’t take that home,’ or ‘We have to wait until pay day.’ There was no economic reason that I couldn’t take 50 books home with me. That was empowering and exciting.”

Pippi Longstocking and The Boxcar Children were among her favorites as a child. In high school, The Color Purple became very formative, particularly in exposing her to diverse voices. “Suddenly there was this literature that was just so incredibly written and so very different from my personal experience,” she recalls, “and yet you always find that piece of human connection and experience. . . . There’s an old metaphor: Books are both windows and mirrors. Reading fiction has been proven to create empathy. For me as a child, it was a window to other people and possibilities, and it can also be a mirror for you to see people like you, which is a really validating experience and why diversity in literature is so important. I think building compassion and empathy is part of creating a civil society.”

“There was no economic reason that I couldn’t take 50 books home with me.”

When Daniel became president of Enoch Pratt in July 2017, she succeeded Carla Hayden, who had held the position for 23 years before becoming the 14th Librarian of Congress.

Daniel had been eyeing Maryland’s state library for years and considers it to be one of the crown jewels of the industry.

“Following a literal legend, you’re coming into an institution that is already well-respected, which is a huge benefit,” Daniel says.

After Hayden left her post at the Pratt, the leadership team and board of directors conducted a national search for nearly a year. Chief operating officer Gordon Krabbe, who has worked at the Pratt since 1989, became acting CEO in the interim.

“You can’t replace Carla Hayden,” Krabbe says, “but 23 years ago, she was in the same kind of situation Heidi Daniel was in. She came around the same age to an organization that she didn’t know a whole lot about, but she had a good baseline experience elsewhere and could see what would work here and learn about the community.”

When the committee interviewed Daniel, who had recently been named Ohio Librarian of the Year, she immediately stood out from other candidates.

“We all thought, ‘That’s it—that’s who I want to work for,’” says Meghan McCorkell, marketing and communication director at Enoch Pratt. “She had ideas that we knew would really move the library into the future.”

She was the unanimous recommendation of the search committee, and the board accepted that recommendation.

“She radiates not just enthusiasm but a real love of libraries,” says Ben Rosenberg, chairman of the board. “Being a librarian is so important to Heidi, and it’s so clear how much it means to her.”

Daniel spent her first year here exploring the city and the library’s many branches and meeting staff, all while working to implement two massive initiatives: going fine-free, which has been a huge success (they’ve had an increase in circulation and materials returned), and extending library hours by more than 30 percent.

“Those are both major policy shifts,” points out McCorkell. “To do one of those things in her first year would be tremendous. To do both is huge. We’re in a totally different place now because of it.”

One thing that Daniel, or any head librarian for that matter, must grapple with is the changing role of libraries in the community. As the digital age has evolved to affect nearly every facet of life, including how literature is acquired and read, libraries have gone from places that house collections of books to community centers that provide access to a variety of resources. Hayden understood that implicitly—and implemented many programs to carry out that vision.

Those include the Pratt’s Lawyers in the Library program, which helps people with advice and can even expunge records; the Social Worker in the Library program, which assists people with finding affordable food and shelter; and the Mobile Job Center, which takes resources directly to neighborhoods where they’re needed the most. The Pratt not only hosts traditional story time for children and myriad book groups (its collections are extensive and constantly being updated) but also houses yoga and meditation sessions, art workshops, and educational classes that are open to the entire community.

And, of course, it’s all free—continuing Enoch Pratt’s original vision to create one of the first free public library systems in the U.S.

These are the things that really drew Daniel to the Pratt.

“It’s all about access,” she says. “Libraries should be a place of possibilities.”

The role of public librarians has shifted, too. While they are still responsible for preserving books—especially specialized cultural collections, such as the Pratt’s African-American and Maryland collections—they have also evolved to become what Daniel calls community navigators, or essential community personnel.

Daniel’s early career path in libraries began with a position at the outreach department of the Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma City. While there, Daniel led a book club at a juvenile justice center for incarcerated youth and worked with teen moms to ensure that they were getting developmentally appropriate books for their children as well as themselves, so that they, as adolescents, could continue their learning path.

Those early programs affected her sense of what a library can be, which she has continued to focus on throughout her career.

“It introduced me to this idea of a library as a center for community learning and activity, rather than a passive place,” she says. “Now I view libraries as places where people can come do things, make things, learn things, meet with people, connect with information and resources that empower and enrich their lives—and then maybe also take something and leave with it. It’s a place where people come and stay and work and interact.”

“She radiates not just enthusiasm but a real love of libraries. Being a librarian is so important to Heidi.”

In her various library roles—including nearly five years as executive director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County in Ohio, a position she held just prior to joining the Pratt—Daniel has worked to make the library more inclusive, listening to the needs of each community. Sometimes that means creating more quiet spaces for individuals among shared spaces or creating active and messy areas for young children. At the Highlandtown branch, for instance, a jigsaw puzzle is set out on a communal table. “I had someone tell me they like to go do that because they end up having conversations with people they never would’ve had conversations with,” Daniel says. Because Baltimore is known as a city of neighborhoods, she sees the libraries serving a crucial role as neighborhood anchors that help connect people.

Meanwhile, Daniel is also overseeing the three-year, $115-million renovation of the central Enoch Pratt branch in Mount Vernon. Slated to be completed this fall, it will include quiet co-work spaces, as well as a job and career center with classrooms, dedicated staff, and small-business help provided by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

“We’re really trying to bridge that gap, not just in terms of accessibility but in terms of equity,” Daniel says. “It’s easy to think that everyone is connected to the internet at all times but, especially in Baltimore, not only is access still an issue for more than 20 percent of households, but digital equity beyond access is important. You can give someone the internet, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into them knowing how to use it to get what they need. So we have people who can show you how to use the internet to talk to your doctor, apply for social services, search for housing, get records that you might need, and also use it for social connection.”

She recounts the story of a man who’d been homeless with his young daughter and had used the Central Library as a place to give her some normalcy and get her away from the stress of living on the streets and in shelters—and also to give himself some dignity. The staff helped him to get a job and a place to live.

“Stories like that happen,” Daniel says, “and you just think, well, this is why I wake up every morning and go to work.”