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.
It's much more user-friendly than the previous location, said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and a frequent visitor to the new archives.
"Before, it was inaccessible. Now it's convenient, open and lots more people are using it," Crenson said. "I've been a steady customer."
In the case of the state archives, the state is responsible for storing a wide range of records, including municipal, executive-level and judicial records. The state even maintains a fine-arts collection, including paintings, furniture and chandeliers.
According to Baker, the archives building at 350 Rowe Blvd. in Annapolis was designed to accommodate the agency's needs up to the year 2000, and it did that. After that, Baker said, the state began to lease space around Anne Arundel County for additional storage capacity.
Several years ago, the archives studied the feasibility of expanding the Papenfuse State Archives Building in Annapolis. The cost turned out to be more than $60 million, and the project was not funded by the General Assembly.
This year, Papenfuse and Baker are proposing the less expensive building in Jessup and asking for funds to be allocated starting in 2017, so the request wouldn't be competing with as many other projects.
Plans call for the facility to contain areas for records processing and storage, electronic archives, "artistic property," research and staff work space. Officials say they hope to hear this month whether their funding request will be considered in 2012.
In return for its work in Baltimore, meanwhile, the state archives gained some storage space on Mathews Street. The city also is helping to pay the cost of the archivists on loan from the state.
Behind this flurry of activity is Papenfuse, who has served as state archivist since 1975 and whose name is on the main state archives building in Annapolis. Now, with the title of acting city archivist, he spends two days a week at the Baltimore location.
"He's done wonders. He should get a lot of credit," said Avery Aisenstark, director of Baltimore City's Department of Legislative Reference.
"He's very entrepreneurial," said Crenson, the Hopkins professor. "When you think of an archives, you might think of a stodgy operation. That's not the spirit here at all. They're always looking for new sources of funding and ways to make the records more accessible to people by putting them online. They're not standing still."
Papenfuse said he has more ideas.
He would like to put the city archives on firmer financial footing by implementing a new fee structure to help generate more revenue to help pay for records storage and management. He believes that a portion of the money charged to the public for researching documents, such as property deeds and birth certificates, should be used to maintain the archives where the records are stored.
Papenfuse would like to see the city archives housed in an even more prominent location. He said he has his eye on the Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry at North Charles and 39th streets, a nearly windowless white marble building that is still used by the Masons but has been put on the market.
Papenfuse also said he wishes the state had money to acquire more documents that have been in private hands. He noted that an 1815 letter written and signed by "Star Spangled Banner" poet Francis Scott Key, and a 1792 Book of Common Prayer owned by the wife of Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, both were put up for auction recently by the Baltimore Book Co., but the state had no money to buy them.
Papenfuse and Baker say they realize that funds are tight everywhere, but they are optimistic that Maryland will find the resources necessary to protect its history.
"Maryland has always been in the forefront of safeguarding its documents," Papenfuse said.