BALTIMORE - For days, Melanie Townsend Diggs had the same message each time the microphones appeared.

Come back, she said again and again, when the spotlight fades and normalcy returns. See us how we are meant to be seen.

That moment appeared at hand at midafternoon Wednesday at the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

A half-dozen kids stared at computer screens on the first floor, and a few adults sat in the upstairs reading area. A mother pushing a stroller came through the front door.

"People will remember the library as a safe place," Townsend Diggs said, settling into a pint-size chair in the children's section.

The branch, framed by two-story windows, sits at North Avenue and Pennsylvania, the epicenter of the tumult that erupted this week across the city. As branch manager, Townsend Diggs occupied a front-row seat, but she also didn't stop working.

When throngs filled the street, and most stores in this West Baltimore neighborhood closed, the library stayed open.

"It's just instinct," she said. "How could we not?"

By Wednesday afternoon, the corner appeared more like the bustling intersection residents knew before the TV satellite trucks had arrived. Police were still on the block, but not in a blockade formation. Locals milled about, but none flooded the street like the days before.

Townsend Diggs had been at the branch Monday afternoon when, through the windows, she saw a mob coming her way. She locked the doors and individually alerted each of the 30 patrons and workers about what was happening.

Within hours, looters had ransacked a pharmacy across the street, and parked cars were ablaze. Townsend Diggs and others left through a side door.

It wasn't until she got home that night, she said, that she became "very emotional" - elated that no one had been hurt.

The next day, Townsend Diggs and her bosses decided to open as usual.

When people returned Tuesday for largely peaceful demonstrations, the library became a way station. Activists and reporters flocked in and out of the bathrooms. Whole Foods sent dozens of wraps and water. And Townsend Diggs kept her normal hours.

"We need to show [the community] that we care about them," she said.

She grew up in East Baltimore and started as a biology major at Towson State University, she said.

But she had worked in city libraries since she was a teenager and went back after graduation. Then she was offered a scholarship to pursue a master's degree in library science and jumped at the chance.

She's 44 now, with four kids and years of experience in the system. Last summer, she transferred to the Pennsylvania branch after managing a smaller one.

Townsend Diggs was careful not to offer her opinion on the protests, the violence, or the underlying unrest that started with the death of Freddie Gray. She said she was too focused on work.

As many as 400 people a day now come through the library doors, she said. Some days, she finds a line waiting when she unlocks it: the unemployed or retirees or students needing to fill their afternoons.

In an impoverished neighborhood like this one - where corner drug sales aren't an uncommon sight - the branch can be a safe haven, she said.

Even transformative.

"You can open up a book," she said, "and you can find yourself anyplace in the world."

cpalmer@phillynews.com

@CS_Palmer