In her time working for Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library system, Sadye Whitt has seen 10 mayoral inaugurations, five library administrations, thousands of book acquisitions and countless technological changes.
That’s what happens when you’ve worked for the city longer than anyone else — 56 years, to be exact.
“That’s the stubborn streak in me,” Whitt said of her career’s longevity. “I like doing what I do. If you’re doing something you hate, why would you do it? I’ve been blessed working at Pratt. Not a lot of people can say that about their job.”
Whitt, 77, was first hired by the Enoch Pratt library department on April 3, 1962, according to city records. The next person in line for Baltimore’s title of longest-tenured public employee, an office supervisor for the police department, wasn’t hired until January 1965. The average city employee in 2018 typically had about 13.37 years on the job.
“We’ve always had fun,” Whitt said of her job and department. “It’s been good, and that says a lot over the years.”
Whitt walks with a cane, frequently comes to work in a pair of silver sneakers and hasn’t bothered counting her hire date anniversaries for about 10 or 15 years — library staff refreshed Whitt’s memory last year when they celebrated her 55th.
At first impression, Whitt might seem a little shy. Soft-spoken, she much prefers her position in acquisitions to interacting directly with patrons. When asked about her career, she refers to notes she’s written out in neat cursive to make sure she hasn’t forgotten a date or the name of an old colleague she once admired.
However, Whitt is also direct, and comfortable navigating the technology that’s been introduced to her job description over the years. A smartwatch glints on her wrist as she types book order details into her desktop computer. Co-workers drop by her desk frequently to rehash the good old days at the library.
Whitt has decades’ worth of memories to pull from — from the library’s role in cultivating Whitt’s passion for reading to its changing policies since before Baltimore’s civil rights era.
Whitt was 21 when she first applied for a position at the Fells Point branch library. It was a perfect gig, within walking distance of her childhood home on Fleet Street. In 1967, she transferred to her current position, helping the library process book acquisitions in the Collections Access Service Division. A co-worker now gives her rides to work every day from her home in the Loch Raven neighborhood.
Whitt’s job is to place orders for new books, process arrivals, track the condition of books and approve invoice payments. For years, her duties were performed almost entirely on paper, which required her to stay organized and meticulous.
In the 1980s, technology started to creep into the library’s operations. Whitt studied to keep up with what seemed like an entirely new language surrounding computers, she said.
“I mean, the vocabulary alone,” she said. “What is a mouse you don’t have to set a trap for? A cookie you don’t eat?”
But Whitt said she does not fear change and has welcomed the technology that makes her job more efficient.
Whitt’s job carries the generic title of Office Assistant III in Baltimore City employee records. Her manager, Yvonne Patillo, says Whitt is responsible for digitally processing books and reference materials, like dictionaries, catalogs and statistical texts.
Whitt still vividly remembers some of the darker moments in Baltimore’s history through the lens of the library system. There was a time, she said, when African-American historical texts were kept separate from the library’s primary collection.
“They were kept in the work room,” Whitt said. “You had to ask them to pull it for you.”
And then there was the utility closet door inside the women’s bathroom in an employee section of the library. The paint was partially faded, but Whitt could read the word “colored” on the door for years, she said.
She watched multiple administrations come and go, the door left unaddressed.
“Why hadn’t this been removed?” she thought each time she passed it. “Horrible, just horrible. All those administrations and it was still readable.”
The door was eventually replaced in the 1990s, Whitt said.
Whitt’s cubicle is decorated with stacks of papers and knickknacks, like a sign that says “I’m not old, I’m just becoming vintage.” Her chair faces a massive storage room where thousands of volumes of books are processed by the library system each day.
Library staffer Brian McNair first met Whitt when he began in the department in 2013. They became fast friends when they took a library-organized line-dancing class during a lunch break.
“Miss Sadye was in there with all those youngsters bopping along,” he said.
McNair was born the year Whitt first started working for Enoch Pratt, so the memories she has of her career are often mirrored in recollections of his childhood. The two have unofficially adopted each other as a nephew and aunt.
“We have a lot we can share with memories of those eras and how things changed a whole lot,” McNair said.
Through all the library’s changes and historical moments, Whitt said she’s still a traditionalist about one thing.
“There’s nothing like the smell of a new book,” she said. “You would think because I work in a library, I wouldn’t buy, but I do.”
Whitt’s decades in the library helped build her into an avid reader, she said. Her favorite book in the library is the King James version of the Bible — though for months she was awaiting the arrival of “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Sometimes she gets to leaf through copies of new releases as the library adds to its collection.
After 56 years working for the library, Whitt said, she has found peace cherishing the memories of what was while embracing what has come to be.
She has no interest in leaving the job she loves. “Work is not a dirty word,” she said.