Over quarter century, Columbia archivist made her own mark in history

The Baltimore Sun

Many people who moved to Columbia in its early decades were attracted by founder James W. Rouse’s vision to create a new city from the ground up.

Barbara Kellner, who is retiring this month after 25 years as the director of the Columbia Archives, wasn’t one of them — at least not initially.

The New Jersey transplant first visited Columbia with her husband, Jeff, in 1983 during a whirlwind house-hunting weekend spurred by a job transfer. The couple learned about the planned city in a visitors’ center slideshow before an al fresco meal on the lakefront sealed the deal and they bought a home.

Soon after moving in, Kellner saw an ad in the Columbia Flier for volunteers to preserve the city’s history and decided to join the nascent effort, though she had no formal training in the field.

“I found the work fascinating,” she said, “so I never left.”

Kellner’s last day on Dec. 22 will cap a career with the Columbia Association — which is searching for a new archives director — that has made her name synonymous with an expansive collection of items that might have otherwise been lost with the passage of time.

Current holdings in the archives include more than 500 linear feet of personal papers and organizational records, 7,000 visual images and graphic materials, more than 300 audiovisual recordings and numerous books, reports, local newspapers and artifacts.

Rouse’s papers, in particular, were coveted after his death in April 1996 by renown organizations such as the Library of Congress, Kellner recalled.

“It was a real coup for the little Columbia Archives to get Jim’s papers,” she said. “It was agreed that Columbia was his crowning achievement and his papers should be where he lived and worked.”

The idea to create the archives grew out of an exhibit for Columbia’s 15th birthday in 1982 that was spearheaded by Rebecca Orlinsky, then-wife of Howard County Times and Columbia Flier publisher Zeke Orlinsky, who was head of Patuxent Publishing Company's chain of weeklies.

“The vision was born to preserve Columbia’s history and that was prescient,” Kellner said of her participation in the archives’ humble beginnings. “It was incredible to be collecting the history while it was happening.”

Among Kellner’s favorite items are letters exchanged by Rouse and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat who founded Earth Day in 1970 and was seeking Rouse’s support for an ecological research and surveys bill.

A meeting with Joyce C. Hall, the American businessman who founded Hallmark Cards, is listed in a jam-packed pocket planner from the early 1960s when Rouse was working on a project in Kansas City, Mo., where the greeting card company is headquartered.

Ticket stubs from the first concert season at Merriweather Post Pavilion and an architectural rendering of the Rouse Company headquarters on Lake Kittamaqundi pay homage to two of Columbia’s most iconic structures.

But Rouse’s eyeglasses and trademark bucket hat — perched on a stark-white mannequin head on his writing desk — top Kellner’s list, with his handwritten correspondence and notes for speeches coming in a close second.

“Reading Jim’s papers intensified my personal optimism because I absorbed what he espoused,” she said. “Columbia changed me in many ways, particularly my views on diversity and inclusiveness, even though I was already a liberal.”

Kellner threw herself even deeper into her job after her husband died at age 52 in 1999 after a brief illness.

“That was a turning point in my life and in my passion for the work,” she said.

Kellner later became the reluctant host of “Columbia Matters,” a onetime cable-access TV show, and went on to write two books, one on Columbia for the “Images of America” series and the other as a co-author of a book on the origins of the city’s unusual street names.

Over time, Kellner warmed up to her public role as the face of the archives and grew to relish it, she said.

“Working at the archives was a wonderful outlet for my energy and creative thought,” she said. “I feel like I grew up here, and I got more out of it than I put in.”

Most people familiar with the archives would debate the last sentence of that statement.

Robert Tennenbaum, Columbia’s chief architect and planner, believes the creation of an archives is unprecedented in a city Columbia’s size.

“I know of no other community planning project that has ever thought of keeping its history from the beginning,” said Tennenbaum, who has resided in Bryant Woods since 1967.

“Barb asked people for contributions of anything relating to Columbia, and the archives became this incredible facility that only cities like Washington, New York and Chicago have.

“It’s not a stodgy, academic facility, but a place that combines the old and the new and lets people know they’re living in a special place,” he said. “Barb made a major difference by creating it virtually out of nothing.”

But the archives’ early years were anything but auspicious.

“Dribs and drabs of anything to do with the planning and development of Columbia were being added, but the archives still hadn’t been designated an official repository by the early 1990s,” Kellner recalled.

It had become difficult to obtain grant money by that point, and Kellner was the only one working on the collection. After going six months without pay, she and others feared for the future.

“We knew we had to get attached to something that would support us,” Kellner said.

The Columbia Association became that entity in 1992 and Kellner, who was named director, said that decision made all the difference.

Robin Emrich, who was hired by Kellner to serve as archivist in January 1998, said her boss kept the archives alive for several years before it began rebounding.

“Jim’s papers added to the gravitas of the Columbia Archives and that caught my eye,” she said of her decision to apply for the job.

While the task of organizing belongs to Emrich, “Barb is the key liaison between Columbia history and the public,” she said. “There is no Columbia ambassador equal to her, and the artifacts and ephemera could have slipped through our grasp without her.”

Kellner also pitched the idea of holding Columbia BikeAbouts, annual events that combine themed bicycle tours of the city with a history lesson, Emrich said.

But one of the best aspects of the archives under Kellner has been the policy that “no research project is too small or unimportant” and all are welcome, she said, since the archives belongs to the community.

Josh Olsen, a Washington real estate executive whose biography of Rouse was published in 2004, spent most days in 2001 in the archives and learned as much about Kellner as he did about his subject.

“Barb really cares about Columbia and she has worked hard to get its history out into the community,” Olsen said.

“I was lucky twice in doing my book research: Once, because Rouse was a packrat and saved everything including his grade-school report cards. And twice, because Barb saved what he saved.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated the year of Jim Rouse’s death. It has been corrected here. The Sun regrets the error.

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