At first glance, it might seem someone's been collecting long-fallen autumn leaves, judging by the musty odor and the browned and brittle sheets crumbling on the shelves.
But this is the dimly lit Stack 7 of the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street, and the only thing going back to nature is Maryland's foremost collection of newspapers, two centuries and more of history that biodegrades before your eyes.
"Don't you love these moldering stacks? Depressing!" pronounces Peter Curtis, a librarian at the University of Maryland College Park.
As director of the Maryland Newspaper Project, it is Mr. Curtis' job to capture all of this history before it disintegrates. With $347,100 in National Endowment for the Humanities grants, project staff have located, cataloged and, in some cases, microfilmed Maryland's surviving newspapers.
The Maryland project is part of an eight-year-old national program that is expected to locate up to 250,000 American newspaper titles in dozens of languages. By century's end, historic newspapers should be available on microfilm to researchers all over the country.
The Maryland cataloging job, which began in early 1988, is nearly done. About 1,650 Maryland titles, and 930 other U.S. titles held here, have been found at 87 different locations across the state -- everything from the Maryland Gazette of 1727, the state's oldest recorded newspaper, to The Sun you are reading now.
While it's probably true that nothing is older than yesterday's newspaper, that same newspaper is somehow rejuvenated as time goes by. With sufficient aging, it makes for more fascinating reading than the day it was published.
Dip into the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer of Feb. 10, 1794, and you'll find that William Beers' indentured servant, John Richardson, 50, a native of England, "tolerable well-faced, a little hard of hearing," has fled. "Ten Dollars Reward -- Stop the Old Transgressor," Mr. Beers' advertisement urges.
Catch up on 1864 news of "guerrillas in Kentucky and Tennessee" in the Baltimore Clipper, or check out the enticing ad for "Prepared Peruvian Guano and Bone Dust" in an 1867 issue of the St. Mary's Gazette.
Strangely, that 1867 St. Mary's Gazette is likely to be around for reading much longer than, say, a 1920 issue of its successor publication, the St. Mary's Beacon.
In the late 19th century, newspapers switched from high-quality rag paper to cheaper wood-pulp paper whose short fibers are bound with an acidic chemical. Over time, the acid chews up the paper. Generally, the more recent the paper, the faster it deteriorates.
Wesley Wilson, chief of the Pratt's Maryland Department and Stack 7 tour guide, fingered an 1826 issue ofthe Baltimore Gazette & Daily Advertiser.
"It's in very good condition. The paper's just as soft, not brittle at all," he said.
Then he pointed to the Cambridge Record of 1917.
"It can't even be opened," he said, and as he walked by, the breeze caused flakes of the newspaper to fall to the floor.
Under Mr. Wilson's direction, the Pratt has spent $25,000 a year in federal funds for the past three years to have severely deteriorating newspapers microfilmed.
The Baltimore Post of 1929-1934, now on microfilm, "was so brittle all you had to do was breathe on it," Mr. Wilson said.
In all, Mr. Wilson figures there are at least 400,000 more newspaper pages to be microfilmed among the more than 800 titles in the Pratt collection.
He has drawn up a list of 88 top-priority titles in desperate need of preservation on film.
The Pratt titles hint at the sweep of Maryland history: from the Baltimore Daily Repository of 1791-1793 and the Boonsboro Odd Fellow of the 1840s through Baltimore's Afro-American Ledger of 1915 and the German-language Sonntagsblatt des Baltimore Correspondent of the 1920s and 1930s to the Greenbelt Cooperator of 1937-1943.
"Newspapers are such an accurate record of a time," Mr. Wilson said. "Many newspaper titles in this collection are the only copies left anywhere. If we were to lose these, we would lose a very important primary source document and record of Maryland history."
Before the Maryland Newspaper Project began, the Maryland State Archives was already microfilming state newspapers. Since 1978, the archives has recorded 181 titles containing nearly 1.3 million newspaper pages for posterity, more than half a million pages in the last two years alone, said archivist Christopher N. Allan.
"The basic point is that you can't do any local history without them. Absolutely none," Mr. Allan said. "They cover things in a way that public records do not. They have more information about people and events than any other source."
Mr. Allan is now trying to "polish off" a backlog of 217,000 pages, much of it crumbling. He estimates that another 1.5 million pages in the state deserve to be filmed.
"If we don't move to preserve this stuff, it will be gone," he said.
Old newspapers turn up everywhere.