Papenfuse ends 38-year run as Maryland's memory keeper

This is Edward C. Papenfuse, Ph.D., State Archivist for Maryland, who is retiring today after 40 years of service. He is photographed at the Baltimore City Archives, which shares space with some of the Maryland State archives.
This is Edward C. Papenfuse, Ph.D., State Archivist for Maryland, who is retiring today after 40 years of service. He is photographed at the Baltimore City Archives, which shares space with some of the Maryland State archives. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

For the first time in almost 40 years, someone other than Edward C. Papenfuse is the keeper of Maryland's memories.

Papenfuse, 70, retired last week as state archivist after a career spanning seven governors. Over that time he brought Maryland's public records from the era of the index card to the digital age, making hundreds of millions of state documents as close as the nearest computer.


And he had a lot of fun doing it.

"It's been a joyful experience working with some very good people to make the collective memory of the state a reality," he said before turning over control Friday to deputy archivist Timothy D. Baker.


It's been a career of notable moments for the Ohio native, who came in with the 200th anniversary of the Revolutionary War and is leaving during the bicentennial of the three-year War of 1812.

Papenfuse has served as the State House tour guide for Michelle Obama and showed her the state's prized handwritten copy of George Washington's 1783 speech resigning his commission in Annapolis — an artifact Papenfuse took the lead in acquiring.

The Maryland State Archives building on the gateway to Annapolis was named in Papenfuse's honor. And it was Papenfuse who had the job of kicking a new governor and his staff out of the State House for restoration of the iconic structure in 2008.

"It wasn't easy for Ed to ask us to move out of the State House when our administration was just getting started," Gov. Martin O'Malley recalled. "The conversation went along the lines of 'I know you worked real hard to get here, and now you need to get out.'"


Papenfuse chuckled when asked about his role as bearer of bad news.

"Governor O'Malley has a very wry Irish sense of humor," he said, adding that some he worked for seemed to have none at all.

Papenfuse was named state archivist and commissioner of land patents — his formal title — under the administration of Gov. Marvin Mandel in 1975 after serving two years as deputy. Since then Papenfuse has served under six other governors, including acting Gov. Blair Lee III.

His tenure with the state nearly ended in 1986 under Gov. Harry R. Hughes. At the time, the archives were a sub-agency of the Department of General Services, with a crowded and obsolete building on the St. John's College campus. When the Smithsonian Institution came calling with an offer to make Papenfuse its chief archivist, he came close to accepting the position.

But Hughes came through with an offer to make the archives an independent agency and to put money for a new building in the capital budget. Papenfuse decided to stay put.

"We made every effort to keep him here," said Hughes."I'm glad he stayed."

Asked whether he regretted passing up a nationally prominent role, Papenfuse said "not in the slightest."

Staying in Maryland gave him rare opportunities.

"One of the things I'm really proud of is we brought Washington's original resignation speech back to Maryland," he said. Papenfuse, who had been hoping to acquire the one-of-a-kind document since 1980, finally landed it in 2006 — raising money from philanthropists to pay the bulk of the cost.

Finding ways to stretch taxpayers' funds by tapping other sources has been a hallmark of his tenure.

"He's been the most entrepreneurial person I've ever encountered," said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

Papenfuse's work to salvage the Baltimore City archives — his major project in recent years — has made it possible for Crenson to research a book on the city's political history. A few years ago, the city's records were stored in a vermin-ridden building in Druid Hill Park where they were in danger of being lost. Papenfuse arranged to move them to better quarters.

"I can't imagine how I'd be able to write this book without the archives assembled under his oversight," Crenson said.

One of the most practical applications of Papenfuse's work has been in real estate.

James Cosgrove, past president of the Maryland Land Title Association, said that as recently as the early 1990s, Maryland land records were almost entirely on paper and spread through the courthouses of 24 jurisdictions.

"It would take weeks to get copies of documents that were necessary to create a title and go to settlement," Cosgrove said.

With money from a document recording fee Papenfuse helped get through the legislature, the archives began the massive task of indexing records going back to the 1600s and putting them online. Now a title researcher can work from home or an office.

"It's practically instantaneous now," Cosgrove said. "You don't have to go to the courthouse." The streamlined process, he said, saves buyers and sellers money when they go to the settlement table.

Baker, Papenfuse's deputy for 11 years, said his boss was a national pioneer in making government records available online even before the rise of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

"Ed saw the power of the Internet long before it was popular to see that," Baker said.

One of the few officials who can match Papenfuse's endurance is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who entered the Senate the same year Papenfuse was named archivist. Miller, who shares a passion for Maryland's past, said Papenfuse has played a vital role in the restoration of a State House that dates to 1772.

"He's a stickler for accuracy and he's also a great advocate for the preservation of our records — including the records of the counties — so future historians can have access," Miller said.

Baker will serve in an acting capacity until Papenfuse is replaced. The next archivist will be appointed by the governor after a recommendation from the Hall of Records Commission.

Papenfuse said he plans an active retirement that will include work on two books about Maryland history.

"I just want to stress that I'm grateful to serve," he said. "Hopefully I've given as much back as I could in kind, which means to me making accessible the public memory."