Whitt, 77, was hired by the Enoch Pratt library department on April 3, 1962, according to city records. The next person in line for the most years of employment, an office supervisor for the police department, was hired in January 1965. The average city employee has 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.
Whitt seems a little shy. Soft-spoken, she prefers her position in acquisitions to interacting with patrons. When asked about her career, she refers to notes she has written in neat cursive to make sure she hasn’t forgotten a date or the name of a former colleague.
Whitt is also direct and comfortable navigating the technology that has been introduced to her job description over the years. A smartwatch glints on her wrist as she types details of book orders 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 library memories — from its role in cultivating Whitt’s passion for reading to its change in policies since Baltimore’s civil rights era.
“I think it’s a testament to Pratt library that we have employees like Sadye who stay entire careers,” said library spokeswoman Meghan McCorkell. “I couldn’t believe so many have 50, 46, 40 years. That’s the norm here.”
Whitt was 21 when she applied for a position at the Fells Point branch of the library system. It was a perfect gig, within walking distance of her childhood home on Fleet Street. In 1967, she transferred to her book acquisitions position in the Collections and Access Service Division. A co-worker 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 crept into the library’s operations. Whitt studied to keep up with what seemed like a new language, 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 is working at a windowless warehouse on Annapolis Road while the central library building on Cathedral Street undergoes a $115 million renovation. The reopening is scheduled for fall 2019.
Whitt’s job caries the generic title of office assistant III. Her manager, Yvonne Patillo, says Whitt is responsible for digitally processing books and reference materials like dictionaries, catalogues and statistical texts.
Acquisition employees bring the library’s shelves to life, Patillo said.
“We’re hidden,” Patillo said. Though Whitt rarely interacts with visitors, the books they read have passed through her hands.
Whitt vividly remembers the darker moments in the library system’s history. 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.”
Although the paint was faded, a closet door in a women’s bathroom had the word “colored” on it for years, she said.
She watched administrations come and go, but the door went 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 replaced in the early 1990s, Whitt said.
Whitt’s cubicle is filled with stacks of papers and knickknacks. She has a sign that says, “I’m not old, I’m just becoming vintage.” Her chair faces a storage room where thousands of volumes of books are processed each day. She eagerly awaits her department’s return to the central library building.
“I used to ride bus No. 3, which stopped right in front” of the building, she said. “Every morning, I’d get off the bus and pause to see the most elaborate window displays.”
Library staffer Brian McNair met Whitt in 2013. They became fast friends when they took a line-dancing class at the library during a lunch break.
“Miss Sadye was in there with all those youngsters bopping along,” he said.
McNair was born the year Whitt started working for Enoch Pratt, so the memories she has of her career often mirror recollections of his childhood. They have adopted each other as nephew and aunt.
They lament the loss of some of their favorite lunch spots and thought wistfully of the days when, they said, downtown Baltimore was in its prime.
“We have a lot we can share with memories of those eras and how things changed a whole lot,” McNair said.
Whitt said her proudest moment during her career happened in 1984 during the library’s “Black Family Ties” exhibit that included photos of her family members.
Through all the library’s changes and historic 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 turned 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.
After 56 years working for the library, Whitt said, she finds peace in cherishing the memories of the past while embracing the present.
For the past few weeks, Whitt has been taking home two knickknacks from her desk. However, she has no interest in leaving the job she loves.
“Work is not a dirty word,” she said.
Removing the items is in preparation of moving back to the central library building. Whitt looks forward to passing the building’s big windows each morning.
That building, she said, is her home.
“That’s why I come every day, because my feet know the way,” she said.
Baltimore Sun writer Christine Zhang contributed to this report.