Md. up to its neck in old paperwork 11 years after opening, state's archives building has no space

December 16, 1997|By LAURA SULLIVAN | LAURA SULLIVAN,SUN STAFF

Eleven years ago, under the weight of three centuries' worth )) of court, marriage, land and death records, the state opened a new $7.5 million building for the Maryland State Archives roomy enough to hold every document that would be churned out into the next century.

But the three-story building is filled already.

Last month, state officials quietly signed a lease to rent additional storage space near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"I think they wanted to build a place where they could put everything in one building and have room for the staff to work," said Patricia Melville, director of reference services at the archives. "But we've just outgrown the building."

No one seemed to have anticipated the mass of paperwork that began arriving at the back door of the archives the minute they opened, documents by the truckload. In 11 years, 38 miles of stacking, sliding, rotating shelves filled.

The number of boxes grows exponentially by the year, researchers say, probably as a result of explosive growth across the state. More court cases are being filed, more babies born, more people dying, and more land is being bought and sold.

The archive's oldest record, a leather-bound, 2-inch-thick binder sitting on a back shelf, contains all of what is now Maryland's yearly business for 1634. A couple of dozen wills, a few patents, land deeds, the magistrate's executive orders -- that was it.

By contrast, counties such as Howard, Prince George's and Calvert produce one 2-inch thick book of records a day now -- just for land transactions.

"We don't go out and seek records," Melville said. "We are getting calls all the time from the state and counties who want us to take their records. Sometimes it's a struggle to keep up with demand."

The archives now includes up to 70 full-time staff members and 40 volunteers.

Getting counties to obey early 20th-century law requiring the state preservation of records has been anything but difficult.

Most counties, enticed by the idea of turning a storage room into an extra office or stopping warehouse rent payments, have handed over just about everything.

Baltimore City is the biggest space hog, filling almost an entire floor of the archives, but counties such as Calvert, Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel are catching up fast.

Anne Arundel County has become notorious among the researchers lately, since the demolition of the old Annapolis courthouse left officials there with no place to put thousands of old case dockets and land records.

Archive Director Edward Papenfuse said that while he anticipated the archives would run out of room by 2000, he does not expect the next century to produce such a crush of documents.

"In the future we will see a tremendous move away from paper," Papenfuse predicted. "The good news is that the information will be more readily accessible. The bad news is that it is a highly volatile, highly fragile medium. You have to have the resources available to maintain electronic records."

Carroll, Prince George's and Montgomery counties are the first to latch onto the trend. Officials there began scanning their land records onto computer databases last year. No hard copies of those records exist.

The World Wide Web section of the Internet also illustrates the change Papenfuse has predicted. The Maryland archives was the first in the country to go online in 1991 and now has one of the most thorough Web sites around, with thousands of wills and land records available.

Still, some counties have arbitrarily held onto a few obscure original records, sending the archive only copies.

Howard County hangs onto its original will books. Allegany County keeps its land indexes; Carroll wants its marriage registries.

Researchers aren't sure about the exact reasons for holding onto such specific items. Most counties say space dictates what they can keep. Will books aren't all that large compared with court records.

But for some counties faced with rapid expansion and change, the old, somewhat arcane records, regardless of their actual pertinence, are an important glimpse at the past.

"Just the sentimental value, I suppose," said Kay Hartleb, Howard County's register of wills. "Just to have these things to look over. It's nice to have these things here. They are part of our history."

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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