Six decades at The Sun: newspaper librarian recalls changes to business, building on Calvert Street

As I sit at my desk looking out my window for one of the last times (I have a direct view of the dome of Johns Hopkins hospital and Old Town and the tower of old Engine House No.6 and cars whizzing up and down the Jones Falls Expressway), memories of The Baltimore Sun on Calvert Street flash through my head.

I’ve been coming to this building since I was a toddler, with my father, Walter M. McCardell, who was a Baltimore Sun news photographer for 44 years and routinely brought home at least three papers a day: The Baltimore News American and the Evening Sun and Morning Sun and sometimes a New York Times or Washington Post. Ink ran through his veins, a trait he passed on to me.

Later, I started work here myself in 1983, in the library — which we call “the morgue.”

I began as an intern in June of that year and was hired fulltime for the night shift that November, after being tested on my abilities to put things in alphabetical order and type. I didn’t do too well on the typing test, but I did have a history degree, with a minor in political science, which appeared to be good enough for the company.

I tell the new reporters I was born here and grew up here. I was actually born two blocks away, at the original Mercy Hospital building, which has since been razed, but that’s still pretty close. I remember beginning to look at photographs in the newspaper when I was about 6, and soon starting to read the words, as well. This helped me a lot at school with geography and current events and many other subjects. I learned to look for my father’s name to see what assignments he went on.

I am one of 10 children, with eight sisters and one brother. My father would take us in groups or individually on assignments with him, and we would end up at The Sunpapers building. It was huge to me and was a beehive of activity. My father worked on the third floor, and he would take me in the photo department darkroom where he would work his magic and you would see the photo come to life while it sat in developer.

I remember going to the composing room where they had a bank of Linotype machines, and my father introduced me to one of the operators, who typed out my name in lead. I was surprised by the number of people. Everybody’s brother or sister or cousin seemed to work at The Sunpapers or knew someone who did. I was also surprised how they could read type backward, making sure it was correct.

I would visit the newsroom sometimes and the wire room, which had teletype machines labeled AP (for Associated Press) and UPI (United Press International ). These machines would click and clack and type out reams of paper with stories from all over the world, and men would sort them into different baskets. The newsroom was large with reporters and editors at their desks typing at what sometimes seemed like the speed of light. Reporters and editors would huddle in little groups. A bank of clocks on the wall had times from all around the world. “The Sun never set on The Sunpapers” was a slogan when we had foreign bureaus.

When I started interning here, I was 23 years old. It was a different place from when I was a kid in the ‘60s but still a far cry from the newsroom today. We still had typewriters and a reporter who remembered covering the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937, just before The Sun’s 100th anniversary 11 days later, which happens to be the same date — May 17th — but not year that my mother was born. Further evidence my family belonged here.

The library was a hub of the newsroom where the Morning and Evening Suns would meet; they were very competitive. We didn’t have online databases or the internet for years. We had out-of-town newspapers and all editions of local papers back a few months and many magazines and over 6,000 books. We also stored a million of our past photos, which have since been digitized in a database. The most important thing we had were the clippings — articles cut from the paper. That was the main job of the library: to keep the clipping archive up to date. We had 15 librarians who worked on the day and night shifts back then (today, it’s just me).

Librarians called “markers” would mark up multiple copies of the paper and put subject headings on articles. The “filers” would use large scissors and a special cutter that wasn’t sharp to cut the articles and attach the jumps (the pages articles “jumped” to from the front of a section) with double-sided tape and then fold them like a map. We would file them in big machines called Lektrievers that could rotate around. Every once and a while, these machines would move by themselves when no one was working back there because of some unexplained electrical jolt, and we would say it must be the ghost of H.L. Mencken. He had a habit of coming in late at night.

I wonder if he will come with us to Port Covington or stay behind. After 68 years, we officially close up shop at 501 N. Calvert Street this weekend and joined our printing, production and transportation operation 3 miles south at Sun Park in Port Covington.

I spent the last year moving, organizing and consolidating the library, which was built up over our nearly two century history. Our new space isn’t as big as Calvert Street, but I am grateful to the many Baltimore institutions that have agreed to take care of some of our contents. The Enoch Pratt Free Library took over 40 boxes of our books, which can now be used by the general public. The Maryland State and Baltimore City archives took some as well, along with the Maryland Historical Society and UMBC, which holds original newspapers up to 1968 and, like the Enoch Pratt, has long had a relationship with The Sun.

Baltimore Sun material has always been spread throughout many institutions, handed down over the years by past librarians and retirees and staff. I will miss walking up the hill to get a book at The Pratt or to scan something, but I am sure I will be back. And I have my memories of Calvert Street: all my fellow librarians who were my teachers and professors, the great reporters and editors and photographers and the many departments I have worked with.

I have taken The Gold from Calvert Street — our clips and microfilm going back over 180 years — to build a new library at Port Covington. I even have a few books and material that was singed, but saved, from the old Sun Iron Building just before it burned down in the Great Fire in February 1904. The rebuilt library will become more digital for easy access and searching.

With the move, I rejoin our presses. The last press run on Calvert street was in 1993; most of the papers have been printed at Port Covington since 1992. The floor doesn’t shake any more, but I can hear the whir of the presses and newspapers moving and see the activity in the mailroom again.

When I started here, the A.S. Abell company still owned The Sun. I am on my fourth owner and ninth publisher since then. The staff has been greatly reduced due to changes in advertising revenue and the decline in classifieds. The way people get their information has also changed. This newspaper staff works harder than ever, though, and still packs a punch. I love it when I see the impact our stories have.

The newspaper and news business has been changing faster than ever, but, to me, newspapers are more important than ever, be they online or in print. The Sun has a history of being innovative, from the Pony Express days to the telegraph to having the first airplane and many other innovations to gather news and deliver it faster. We’ll continue to creatively carry out our mission, wherever we call home.

As editorial writers noted in 1906, when journalists moved into the Sun Square building after the fire: "The Sun is an institution which will not be separated from the people no matter in what part of Baltimore it might be located."

Paul M. McCardell is The Sun’s librarian. His email is pmccardell@baltsun.com.

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