Probably the greatest challenge facing any Archives is acquiring the resources necessary to properly store and make accessible its holdings whether on paper or electronic. The Maryland State Archives is no exception. Recently the Baltimore Sun featured our efforts to find space for the Baltimore City Archives to salvage a much neglected collection that reached back to the days of the founding of the city in the first decades of the 18th century, and included such much damaged treasures as all the details that went into the defense against the assault of the British in 1814.
One such detail was the moldy, water stained, and vermin eaten letter of the then Governor Winder, writing to Baltimore City Mayor Edward Johnson delegating his military authority to the General on the spot, Samuel Smith, as well as the assurance that he was doing everything within his power to supply the defenses of the town. We saved the letter just in time before it disappeared altogether.
In our efforts to save Baltimore City’s records, we were fortunate in getting a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to catalog on line what had survived and indeed images of this letter are also on line along with all the records we are finding that relate to the War of 1812 in which Baltimore played a key role in defining the future of America as we know it, as well as providing us with the inspiration for our National Anthem.
With the help of the city we also got some breathing room with regard to absorbing the annual demand for transferring permanent state records (about 6,000 cubic feet of records a year) and the pending state backlog (24,000 cubic feet). The storage space is not ideal for archival records, nor are the other three warehouses where together we store over half of the archival heritage of the State. As of this writing, we are out of space altogether and cannot take on anything more than a few more small transfers. In terms of future efforts to understand the origins and development of public policy and the search for community and family roots, we are in crisis. A democracy cannot survive without a transparency in government that extends to the historical record and the ability to reflect on how to effectively build upon past successes while avoiding past mistakes.
At this point the question might arise as to why, instead of saving so much paper, why we do not just scan and destroy to save space. While we do scan and deliver images of our paper holdings as the research needs arise, the cost to scan wholesale and destroy the paper is vastly more expensive than properly storing them in an archival facility, not to mention that an image of a paper record cannot economically address all the issues of authenticity such as watermarks and the traces of intentional forgery. It is true that one day we may be a truly paperless government and our archives of the future all born digital records, but we seem to have a long ways to go before that happens.
To date we have proposed two plans for the storage and access to our archival heritage which I will call Plan A and Plan B. Plan A, carefully researched and documented, called for the extension of our present facilities, largely underground, with public park above. I still think it the best approach and the best idea, but in these tough economic times it is simply unaffordable. Plan B is to build or purchase and renovate a remote facility. It is an idea we broached several years ago with the Hall of Records Commission, modeled on the well-designed facility built by Johns Hopkins in Howard County as remote storage for their library system.
We returned to it with careful attention to what the private sector may have to offer, especially in a soft commercial real estate market, for lease and/or purchase. Our conclusions and detailed recommendations are now lodged with the Department of Budget and Planning. Our hope is that they will be released very soon in response to the requirement of last year’s Joint Chairman’s report. Our argument there is that for approximately $15,000,000 the State should purchase and renovate to archival standards a commercially built warehouse large enough to accommodate our projections of the accumulation of permanent archival records through the next 15 years, including consolidation from our current warehousing, and not renewing our expensive leases for non-archival commercial warehouse space as they expire. In making this recommendation, we recognize that, given a robust records management program in all State and Local agencies, the private sector can more efficiently and cost effectively store and destroy temporary records. Our recommendation for State owned and operated space extends only to the permanent historical records of the state so that, for example, the proceedings of the legislature and the governor’s correspondence of the future (both paper and electronic), do not suffer as Governor Winder’s letter did.
We also need to do better by the employees who are critical to the operations of the Archives. At present approximately half are contractual, of whom a large number have worked hard and well for us for many years. We have proposed a plan of contractual conversion and have every hope that this year it will be adopted, especially because it is funded, not by general funds, but by special fund income derived from the archival services we provide at a reasonable cost to assist in the creation and maintenance of permanent records. For example, special fund income supported our creating one of the most successful cost effective electronic archives in the country, and is sufficient to fund contractual conversions.
While the basic infra structure of housing and caring for the Archival Heritage of Maryland is a cost most effectively and least expensively met by a State owned and operated facility, much of the value added work of the Archives can be and is supported through grants and the generous donations of private individuals. Most recently our efforts to utilize the archival resources of the State to document the lives of slaves and those who claimed them as property have been supported by two significant grants from the U. S. Department of Education. This has resulted not only in a remarkable research web site, but also a traveling exhibit that has excited public interest in, and additional support for, research and writing (http://www.mdslavery.net/exhibit/html/index.html).
Because of the down turn in the economy, however, there will be far less federal grant money, if any, available to help continue the work of http://mdslavery.net. We are redoubling our efforts to find other sources of funding from the private and non-profit sector.
We do continue to receive gifts of manuscripts and funds for the restoration of a very small portion of our art and artifact collections. Take for example the portrait of Governor Winder which is typical of the need for care and maintenance of all the artwork for which we are accountable. With the assistance of the Senate the portrait was conserved and is now on display in the State House.
We are also grateful for the support for public exhibits such as the funding that came last year for restoration of the Old Senate Chamber and exhibits in the restored Old House of Delegates Chamber. To compliment that funding, we have raised $200,000 in private funds for the building of an exhibit for the State House featuring Washington’s draft of his resignation speech as commander in chief, and recently have been given a $20,000 manuscript letter that details the British reaction to all the effort that Governor Winder, General Samuel Smith, Mayor Edward Johnson, and the citizens of Baltimore put into defeating the superior naval and ground forces that attacked Baltimore in September of 1814. In part Sir Pulteney Malcolm, Vice Admiral, writes his wife Clementia from aboard the British Frigate Royal Oak, just after the battle and his good friend General Ross has been killed by sniper fire:
Our Army defeated the Americans but on their approach to Baltimore they found it defended by a strong entrenched Camp with double their numbers to defend it – we had got within shot of the Batteries – but they had sunk ships to prevent our approach – our Bombs could only throw Shells into the Forts[.] they could not reach the Town – Sir. A. Cochrine [Cochrane] was in the [frigate] Surprise and your friend in the Sea Horse with [Captain James] Gordon as fine a fellow as ever step’d[.]
It became a question wither the Camp should be stormed – it was considered that we might force the works, but that our loss would be more than our little Army could stand – it was therefore resolved to retreat which they did and embarked without molestation – If the General had lived he would have retreated, and there is only this to be said that on approaching Baltimore it was found to[o] strong and we [gave up] the enterprise having beat a superior force on the road
The Friends of the Maryland State Archives are actively working on behalf of the Archival program and are directly funding projects that get the word out about the importance and value of the State’s Archival Heritage. Apart from raising the funds for the exhibit case for the Washington document and a member of the board giving the funds to acquire the British reaction to their Baltimore defeat, the Friends are funding a number of publications, one of which goes to the theme that if we want to learn anything new and possibly instructive about ourselves and our past, we need to pay close attention to the preservation and close examination of the details contained within our collections.
Indeed, as with all of the story of public policy and of history generally, the delight can be found in the archival details that are often overlooked and too often subject to neglect, such as once was the case with Governor Winder’s 1814 letter. For example, reams have been written about the U. S. Constellation and the controversy still rages in some quarters as to whether the current interpretation of that Baltimore City harbor attraction is correct. In writing the narrative for a new Friends of the Maryland State Archives publication entitled “Views of Baltimore and Beyond” I found that one of the maps from a private collection that was loaned to illustrate the book, had never been examined closely enough. It was drawn ca. 1796 by a French expatriate engineer, and is the very first true topographical map of the city, a detail that currently is of great interest to those who are trying to recreate virtually what Baltimore was like during the War of 1812 to parallel their widely acclaimed reconstruction of Washington at the time the British burned the White House and the Capitol. Imagine the surprise and delight to find that the engraver had added another detail over looked by the Constellation scholars: the very first known image of the U. S. Constellation, apparently firing a salute to the City just off Federal Hill.
Saving the details of the past in a reasonable program of appraisal and retention, providing a safe and secure housing for their care and retrieval, must be the primary publicly funded priority of any Archives. Just how important those details can be was just recently the subject of another front page article in the Sun entitled “Laying Claim,” that was published on February 1, 2012.
Because the Maryland State Archives has saved and cared for all of the surviving detailed records relating to the ownership of land in Maryland (the largest single component of our archival holdings), the Boy Scouts of Maryland may well be able to acquire and preserve a hitherto unowned tract of land in the midst of their Harford County campground, assuming they have mastered the details to win their argument before the Commissioner of Land Patents who happens to also be the State Archivist, an additional title that traces its origins back to the very first systematic keeper of the detailed public records of Maryland, the Second Lord Baltimore’s chancellor for Maryland, Philip Calvert, his younger brother.
The old saying that “the devil is in the details” means that it is hard work and not without expense to extract answers from the historical record, but if we fail to even save the record, not only will we be without answers, we will lack the wisdom necessary to even ask the right questions.
Our archival heritage is at risk. We need your help both vocally and financially.
If you have found our on line and in person services at http://mdsa.net of use and important to you, you can make a donation in any amount on line to the Friends of the Maryland State Archives: https://shop1.mdsa.net/Donation/donate.cfm
You can also be vocal by writing directly to the governor, the comptroller and to the Maryland legislature, including the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. You will find their email addresses on our http://mdelect.net web site.