A snapshot of Balto. County

Collection: A library volunteer has gathered thousands of photos chronicling the county's past.

October 17, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Some people collect photographs of their families. Others proudly display "grip and grins" of themselves posing with the rich, famous and powerful.

Richard Parsons is driven to gathering photographic images of everything else - diner waitresses and distillery workers, mammoth snowfalls and fatal car accidents, 19th-century streetcars and school band portraits. He'll even accept a photo of Great Aunt Shirley, depending on the era.

If it's a picture that has something to do with Baltimore County's past or present, with people living, working or playing, chances are Parsons will want to have a look at it. And if he likes it, the photo will join the thousands of others the retired librarian has amassed over the past 20 years for the Baltimore County Public Library.

Since the early 1980s, Parsons has collected between 20,000 and 30,000 photographs of Baltimore County - and some of Baltimore City - for the library. The photos date "from the Civil War to yesterday," according to Parsons, and most are available to anyone who wants to log onto the library's digital photo archives or pay a small fee for a photographic print.

"We are interested in the photojournalism of everyday life," said Parsons, 76, who lives in Towson.

Every photo tells a story, and Parsons seems to know them all by heart.

Presented with an image from the late 19th century of the bowler-wearing staff of John Wight's Sherwood Distillery in Cockeysville, Parsons breaks into a grin. "What a neat picture," he said. "I love this kind of stuff - people in their work sites. This is part of the web of life."

Referring to a 1936 photo of Reginald Keyes and Camilla Johnson of Reisterstown and their large wedding party, he said, "We try to get as many pictures as we can of people in costume - especially members of the black middle class, who were ignored for years," he said. "They went on living their lives just like anyone else."

He even finds advertisements from old high school yearbooks interesting. "You can use them to pinpoint an address," Parsons said. "I suppose it's just one more historic nail in the coffin."

Baltimore County historian John McGrain calls Parsons' collection at the library "enviable."

"He's got everything under the sun," said McGrain, the former chairman of photographs at the Baltimore County Historical Society.

After retiring from the library in 1991, Parsons stayed on to volunteer 20 hours a week acquiring, researching and cataloging photos. He calls what he does a hobby and a duty. Some people might call it an obsession. "It's fascinating," he said. "I wish I'd gotten into it 20 years sooner. I really don't want to see this stuff lost."

To identify each photograph's subject, age and history, Parsons uses his research librarian skills combined with his knowledge of local history. When old street directories and other favorite resources yield little, he sends the photos to area amateur and professional historians who might be able to offer him even the slightest clue.

Until the early 1980s, the library had only localized collections of historic photos of certain communities. The library's photo projects - such as a calendar of historic sites - were compiled with the aid of a photographer who shot new photographs of old places.

Then, during a morning coffee break at the Towson House one day, Parsons learned from his friend, Edmund Kenney, that Kenney's father, William, had a collection of photographs of the textile mill town of Warren, which no longer exists. Parsons started borrowing the photos to have them copied.

A local lawyer told Parsons about a bureau filled with negatives at his aunt's house. It turns out the 2,000 or so negatives belonged to the photos Parsons had begun borrowing from Kenney.

Parsons has since grown used to these "bursts of serendipity" while collecting. Even now he doesn't go looking for photos. He doesn't have to.

People call, write and e-mail him about the contents of their family albums and dusty cardboard boxes in the attic. One man gave him two dozen photos from 1914 through 1930 of Baltimore City streetscapes, harbor scenes and building exteriors and interiors. Taken with a Linhof or some other high-resolution camera, the photos once belonged to Consolidated Gas Co., the forerunner to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Someone else lent him glass plate negatives of Lutherville and its houses.

Over the years, a local newspaper publisher, Patuxent Publishing, has given the library dozens of boxes of its old photos. And Louis Diggs, an African-American historian and author who has written extensively about Baltimore County's black communities, donates photographs from his sizable collection.

The library doesn't pay for photos. Instead, Parsons borrows them or relies on gifts, frequently making house calls to the homes of potential donors with especially promising collections. Most people find out about his collection via word of mouth. "Everyone knows I'm in the collecting business," he said.

There are other places to get old photos, such as local or state historical societies, but the prices for reprints are often high, he said. Instead, Parsons remains committed to compiling a collection at the library that is accessible to all.

"Baltimore County stuff should stay in Baltimore County," he said. "Lots of people want to see photographs of the churches and schools they went to. It should be stuff people can afford."

Parsons is protective of his collection when it comes to its use, however.

Before taking an order for a reprint, he always asks how the person intends to use the photo. Anniversary collages, family genealogy projects and even law office, mall and restaurant decor are acceptable. Some commercial uses are not.

"I don't want them selling bras with these photos," he said.

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