State helps protect Baltimore archives

Archivists also propose expansion in Jessup

  • Edward C. Papenfuse, Ph. D., State Archivist and Commissioner of Land Patents for the Maryland State Archives, is pictured at a warehouse at 2615 Mathews St. which houses archival material. They are hoping to expand to keep up with the volume of material. In the background, Matthew Crenson photographs city council records for a book on which he's working called, "Home of the Brave, a short political history of Baltimore." Crenson doesn't work for the Archives, but uses the facility for research.
Edward C. Papenfuse, Ph. D., State Archivist and Commissioner… (Algerina Perna/Baltimore…)
January 02, 2012|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore was in danger of losing many of its most precious documents several years ago.

A rented building near Druid Hill Park that was used to house the city's historic archives failed to meet even minimal standards for proper records storage. It was damp and moldy. It lacked air conditioning. The roof leaked. Water got on the floor. Snakes crawled around the building. Few of the documents were available online, and there was no equipment to scan them in.

But the state stepped in, and the city's valuable papers, maps and photos have been moved to a sturdy, climate-controlled storage facility in East Baltimore. And people are coming to use them — students, genealogists, writers, researchers of all kinds. The takeover of the city archives is part of a broader effort by state archivists to take all steps necessary to protect valuable Maryland records before they are lost forever.

"It's come a long way" Judith Armold, president of the Baltimore City Historical Society, said of the city archives. "There's been a lot of progress."

The Maryland State Archives, an agency charged with ensuring public records are safeguarded, also is working with volunteers to organize records of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the now-defunct Provident Hospital, consulting with other local jurisdictions on ways to improve their records management procedures and seeking grants to supplement state funds to protect public documents.

And the state archives is gearing up to launch an ambitious capital project designed to improve its own operations in Annapolis. The agency plans to seek $40 million from the General Assembly in the session that begins this month to build a satellite storage facility in Jessup to supplement the main archives.

Twenty-five years after the Annapolis building opened, officials say, it has run out of space to store records the state is required by law to preserve. Archivists have identified state-owned property near the Maryland Correctional Institutions to construct a 167,000-square-foot facility that would replace several rental facilities around Anne Arundel County and give the state enough room to store records and documents until 2022.

Concerned by the way Baltimore was storing irreplaceable city documents, state officials said they moved to temporarily take over the city's operations with the goal of making it as well-organized and protected as the state-owned archives in Annapolis.

State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said the takeover was triggered by the 2008 expiration of the lease for the former facility. He said he was not satisfied with the storage conditions and didn't want the city to renew its lease there.

"There was wildlife in the building — rats, raccoons, pigeons," he said. "It was very close to a disaster."

First, state officials pressed the city to find a better location to house its public records, from court documents and City Council ordinances to zoning maps and real estate deeds. Then, separately, they forged an agreement with the city that gave the state archives authority to administer the city's archives for three years, starting in June 2010.

Although the work is far from done, officials say, they have made headway in putting the collection in better shape.

Papenfuse and Deputy State Archivist Timothy Baker say they know the public has many needs, and archives might not necessarily top the list. Especially in a declining economy, Papenfuse said, "one of the first things to go is … any care of historic resources."

But they argue it is important for governments to make sure records are protected and accessible to the public. Digitizing records may eventually cut down on the need for storage space, but they said state law still requires that public agencies preserve paper documents, and the volume of documents increases every year.

They point to language in the Annotated Code of Maryland that requires the preservation of records from any "public official" — defined as "an official of the State or of a county, city or town in the State."

"Everyone talks about openness and transparency in government," Baker said. "If you aren't providing proper records management, you aren't providing openness and transparency in government."

After the city records were moved to the present storage location in the 2600 block of Mathews St., the state brought in a team of professionals to organize them and integrate them into the state archives' online guide to government records. So far, descriptions of more than 75 record groups have been entered into an online catalog, replacing old handwritten index cards.

Now, high-demand collections, such as correspondence from past Baltimore mayors, are available in folders. The War of 1812 Papers have been digitized. Permanent stack locations have been assigned for hundreds of boxes of documents. Digitization of previously microfilmed records is underway.

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