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Endangered memories

BALTIMORE'S COLLECTIVE memories are fading. And flaking. And destined to turn to dust. Hundreds of thousands of yellowing newspaper clippings, irreplaceable pamphlets and scarce documents - ranging from old theater playbills to political campaign material - are disintegrating as they age in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's collections.

Fortunately, aided by state and federal grants, the library has started digitizing some of its paper rarities, transferring their images and text onto computer disks.

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As a result, old maps and memorabilia are becoming accessible to anyone with a home computer. A preview of these digital exhibits is on the library's Web site, www.pratt.lib.md.us/exhibits/index.html.

It includes letters from H. L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe, portraits of the six Lords Baltimore, views of the city from 1752 to 1930 and samples from the library's massive collection of World War I and II propaganda posters.

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Next to be included are photographs and documents relating to the 1904 Baltimore fire - just in time for next year's centennial of the conflagration that destroyed much of the central business district.

But the library has made no decision about how to go about digitizing the unique local history files, which include 500,000 query index cards with references to important events, institutions and people, as well as about 300,000 vertical files of clippings, reports and correspondence arranged by topic.

Generations of scholars have relied on those files. But the aged paper contents are brittle after decades of being stored in the main branch's Maryland department.

Conserving them is a challenge.

Copyright issues are involved if they are to be digitized; the articles and pictures in the files were never intended for Internet distribution.

There is also a dilemma concerning proper technology. How to handle the query index cards, for example. Because they are not machine-readable, each of the half-million cards would have to be re-keyed during the digitization process. A cheaper alternative is to scan them optically onto computer files. But such files would not be searchable, like a data base.

No one seems to have any idea how much it would cost to digitize the aging files.

The Pratt leadership is concentrating right now on the opening of a new state library resource center annex in November, which will provide greater space to house the Maryland department with its antiquated local history files, as well as the African-American collections.

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But questions of conservation - and digitization - for the library's vast paper holdings should not be put off.

The Pratt leadership needs to prepare alternative scenarios for preserving its old papers, with cost estimates and timetables. A comprehensive and prioritized plan must be developed, one that recommends which of the old paper files should be retained and which can be discarded. Such determinations have created storms of controversy in other cities; the choices and priorities ought to be discussed in Baltimore as well.

Financial support for saving the files should come from a variety of local and national sources, including government and foundations.

The overriding goal must be the securing of Baltimore's collective memories for future generations.


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