They want his name to go on the records

Papenfuse: The state archivist is about to become an edifice.

April 20, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Edward C. Papenfuse isn't quite sure he's ready to become a major public building. He has never held elected office. And he is quite alive. But as to the building, he may not have a choice.

Tomorrow the state Board of Public Works will vote on whether to name the Hall of Records in Annapolis after Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist for almost 30 years.

Such a proposal seldom gets on the board's agenda unless it's a done deal, so Papenfuse seems destined to join the likes of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer in the ranks of living Marylanders who are also edifices.

"I can say that I'm enormously honored, but completely taken aback," Papenfuse said after a reporter broke the news to him. "I still don't think it's deserved."

His bosses on the state Hall of Records Commission obviously disagree. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, chairman of the panel, made the recommendation to the board.

"It is due in large measure to his efforts that the Maryland State Archives has become one of the foremost archival institutions in the country," Bell wrote. "He is nationally recognized as a leader in the field of managing electronic records."

With his white beard, professorial manner and Maryland flag tie, Papenfuse certainly looks every inch an archivist. It wasn't always so.

"When I first came to the archives, nobody believed I could be the archivist of the state of Maryland because I looked so young. Now nobody says that anymore," he said. "I've grown into the part."

Papenfuse, 60, first came to the archives in 1973 as assistant to Gus Skordas, who spent 35 years in the post. Two years later Papenfuse succeeded Skordas at a time when Maryland's archives - all of the state's and many private records dating back to the 1600s - were still housed on the campus of St. John's College.

Over the next decade, Papenfuse spent much of his time working on the master plan that would result in the construction of the Hall of Records, which occupies a prime piece of real estate on Rowe Boulevard - the gateway to the State House and downtown Annapolis.

The building opened in 1984 as part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Maryland colony. Twenty years later, Papenfuse, is still proud that the project came in $200,000 under budget.

Designed by architect Bruce Rich, the brick building's interior is open and airy - the antithesis of a musty old archive. Rich, who works now in Montgomery County, enthusiastically endorses the proposal to name the building after Papenfuse.

"His name should be chiseled on the front of the building," Rich said. He said Papenfuse and his staff were active collaborators in the design of "a contemporary conservative building that doesn't shout at you."

Together, Rich said, they decided the hall's exterior should not compete with that of the State House and that the "visual oomph" should be on the inside.

Part of that impact comes from a mural that dominates the reading room. A reproduction of a 17th-century map of Maryland, it reflects Papenfuse's abiding love of cartography.

"That was all his idea," Rich said.

Papenfuse's enthusiasm for cartography prompted him to write, along with co-author Joseph M. Coale III, two editions of a book of maps of early Maryland.

While the state didn't put money into the book, it is getting some of the benefits. Papenfuse said the archives does "a very brisk business" in reproductions of the maps that were scanned for the book, with the proceeds going toward care of the map collection.

The map venture is just one example of what Papenfuse calls the archives' "entrepreneurial spirit" - for which he gives most of the credit to a staff he praises at every opportunity.

Papenfuse said the archives derives three-quarters of its funding from sources other than the state treasury. One example: a $600,000 federal grant to create a Web-based history of the Underground Railroad in Maryland.

Like many of the archives' resources, that project (http://md slavery.net), can be found online. He said that in 1994 his agency became the first state archives in the nation to have a presence on Internet.

Born in Ohio, Papenfuse attended American University and went on to get his doctorate in history from the Johns Hopkins University, but couldn't land a position in academia.

"When I completed my studies as a historian, the job market was abysmal," the Roland Park resident said. He took a job as editor of the American Historical Review but "jumped at the opportunity" when offered the position of Maryland's assistant archivist.

Since then, Papenfuse has authored several books on Maryland history and is a fixture at state ceremonial occasions.

Timothy Slavin, Delaware's state archivist, said Papenfuse has served longer in his position than any of his peers around the country. He said that before Delaware opened its new archives several years ago, he toured the Maryland Hall of Records and learned a lot from the design.

"Ed is one of the lions of the government archives field," Slavin said. "It's been an amazing run."

Papenfuse said he's in no hurry to reach the finish line. The naming proposal is not a signal of imminent retirement.

"I had no idea this was under way at all," he said. "I love my job."

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