Archival Revival: Efforts to salvage the Baltimore City Archives get a boost

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 3, 2013

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Robert Schoeberlein, left, and Gerald Roberts with a vintage map of Baltimore.

The Baltimore City Archives (BCA), the repository of city records going back centuries to the local government’s earliest days, is abuzz with the work of about a dozen employees scanning historic documents, cataloging records, and otherwise tending to collections. Yet only one—records administrator Gerald Roberts—is on the city payroll. And while computers sit on tables all over the facility, located just east of Greenmount Avenue off 27th Street, Roberts says the city owns only one of them—and none of the six scanners used to digitize the BCA’s holdings.

Though the city rents the office-and-warehouse space that houses the archives and pays all utilities and other incidental costs, such as cleaning crews, Roberts explains, the Maryland State Archives (MSA)—a state agency headed by Edward Papenfuse, who is set to retire this fall after nearly two generations at the helm of the state’s repository of similar materials—covers the salaries of all other workers and, with the exception of that one computer, owns all the digitization and computer technology at BCA that modern archives management requires.

The resource-sharing arrangement began in 2009, according to city records, when MSA received permission to store some of its Baltimore-related records at the BCA in return for providing the BCA with technological services. The agreement was expanded in 2010, when, in return for $90,000—the equivalent of the salary and benefits of a BCA position that had recently become vacant—the MSA agreed to provide day-to-day management and staffing for the BCA.

On June 26, the Baltimore Board of Estimates approved a new agreement, which, according to city documents, “will consolidate the two previous agreements and extend their terms” for five years, until 2018.

It wasn’t always like this. Until it moved to its current location in 2008, Roberts explains, BCA was located at 2165 Druid Park Drive. There, Roberts says, “there was mold and mildew, due to the nature of the building,” and, according to Robert Schoeberlein, the MSA’s director of special collections, who now helps Roberts run the BCA’s day-to-day operations, there was “plastic over the tops of the stacks because of the roof leaks.”

More colorful descriptions of BCA’s prior facility were published in this spring’s issue of Baltimore Gaslight, the newsletter of the Baltimore City Historical Society. Matthew Crenson, an emeritus Johns Hopkins University professor who’s working on a comprehensive history of Baltimore City’s government, described it as a “dank, leaky, vermin-infested warehouse,” while Garrett Power, an emeritus University of Maryland law professor, wrote that the BCA had fallen into “disuse, disorganization, and decay” as records “had been placed in a leaking, decrepit warehouse that posed a clear and present danger to both the papers themselves and the intrepid researchers who used them.”

On a recent visit to the new location, Seattle University professor Emily Lieb was at BCA, going through housing data for a book she’s writing about the impact of a 1970s-era Baltimore City housing program on the Rosemont neighborhood in West Baltimore. She used to put in long hours at BCA’s Druid Park Drive warehouse, and, while she misses it in some respects, she appreciates the importance of the BCA’s revitalization and modernization at its current location.

“What was really wonderful about working over” at Druid Park Drive, Lieb says, was that “essentially they were open stacks, so I could just poke around and see what I find and just stumble across stuff,” which is “not something I would be able to do in a place managed like every other archive is managed, and like this is now managed. I realize it was not the best way to run an archive for preservation purposes,” she adds, “but, for me, I got a lot done. I was thinking just this morning, What kinds of things am I missing now because I don’t know that they exist and I don’t know to ask for them?

Lieb says the Druid Park Drive location would get “very, very hot” and “very cold,” and, since she has “an irrational phobia of large insects, I was always a little worried I’d run into them there. But here, they definitely don’t have giant bugs.” She also appreciates that she no longer works alone: “I don’t think I ever saw another person” at Druid Park Drive other than Roberts, she says, “and here, I’ve seen all kinds of people really making use of the stuff, which is great—that’s what it’s for. It’s great that it’s more accessible and that people feel comfortable using it.”

As Roberts and Schoeberlein give a tour of the office and warehouse, they describe some of BCA’s holdings. Behind the office, in the warehouse stacks, Schoeberlein pulls out what he describes as “records that detail the payments and the outreach to widows and children” of Civil War soldiers in Maryland, and part of a “survey of buildings in the 1930s, early 1940s, that were in the path of possible slum clearance, and a lot were pulled down.” He describes a collection of “studio portraits of Baltimore firefighters with their uniforms on” just after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, and “a series in the 1890s of Russian-Jewish street peddler applications with some demographic information about them.”

Most recently acquired, Roberts says, are “maps laying out where all the storm drains and sanitary systems are under the streets,” as well as “engineers’ field books for sewer connections to houses sometime in the early 1900s” and, Schoeberlein adds, “an aerial survey of Baltimore City from 1927.” Soon, says Roberts, “we’ll be taking in 65 pallets of 40 boxes on each pallet of Law Department files” that date as far back as the 1890s.

“In the past,” Schoeberlein explains, “a city agency might request to have files returned, and it’s troubling because the idea of getting them back or keeping track of them while they’re gone—well, files might not be returned.” Now, says Roberts, “we pull it, scan it, and send it to them as a PDF, and the actual file will never leave here.”

To Roberts, “the situation today—it can’t be improved,” he says. “The tools are here to lay our hand on anything we have, almost immediately. When we were on Druid Park Drive, we didn’t have the computer programs or the computers, so every search we made was on paper and pencil, and then we’d go out and look for it. Now, it’s all right there on the computer, no matter what you want.”

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