Saturday, August 2, 2008

Disaster Recovery World War II Style

The Huntington Library Collection of
Maryland State Archives
Security Microfilm


World War II brought home the real threat of German attacks on the East Coast of the United States, just as the attack on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor brought panic to the West Coast and the deportation inland of the Japanese American population. Shipping all along the East Coast was disrupted by German U Boats, and public officials in Maryland became concerned about the loss of vital historical records at the State Capital, Annapolis. At a meeting in the Governor's office at the State House on December 11, 1941, plans were made to move the records inland to Western Maryland. The fears of loss were not unfounded. U Boats were sighted in the Bay as well as at its mouth. When Harvard University, several decades later, divested itself of duplicate U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey maps of the Chesapeake Bay, offering them to the Maryland State Archives, they turned out to be Charts stamped with swastikas intended for the use of U Boat captains.

Dr. Morris Radoff, only three years into his 36 year term as Archivist, was charged with organizing the move. For Annapolis this would not be the first time. St. George Peale, the brother of the noted colonial artist, was given the same assignment in 1777 when the British fleet came up the Bay. Peale actually moved the records only to have his expense account disputed in classic bureaucratic fashion, and Dr. Radoff had second thoughts when he found how much it would cost to move the original records in 1942. Instead, he suggested security microfilm, to which the Governor and the Hall of Records Commission agreed.

Interestingly enough, the concern was greatest, not about current records, but about the oldest historical records of the State, possibly because only six years before the State had built a state of the art archives building christened The Maryland Hall of Records, and had begun moving all the historical records of the State there from local courthouses where the threat of fire and loss was endemic. By 1946, 256 reels of what Dr. Radoff referred to as the most important holdings of the Maryland Hall of Records (now known as the Maryland State Archives) were completed. The War was over, but the needs of scholars and the concern about future disasters remained. The Hall of Records Commission, chaired by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, on the advice of Dr. Radoff, determined that it would be wise to send copies of the microfilm to California (the Huntington Library), Utah (the Morman Church), and London (The British Library). The Hall of Records kept one copy in Annapolis, and the Library of Congress retained the master negative in Washington. With a significant subsidy from the Library of Congress, headed by Dr. Radoff's friend Luther Evans, the transfer to the Huntington Library and the other repositories was under way by December, 1946, with the Huntington gratefully acknowledging receipt the following January.

In the intervening years, the microfilm copies at Annapolis were largely destroyed by heavy use in destructive microfilm readers. They did serve to help preserve the originals from wear and tear, but their value as a disaster recovery resource was lost. The Library of Congress and the British Library appear to have lost sight of their copies. Undoubtedly the Mormans still have theirs, but they charge a considerable fee for duplicates, as they should, having been one of the earliest organizations to take seriously the business of permanently preserving archival microfilm at their mountain vaults outside Salt Lake City. Fortunately for the Maryland State Archives, the Huntington Library kept their copies safe and uncirculated. When I approached them about permitting us to borrow and scan the film for public use on the web, and as an archival electronic copy for our own disaster recovery program, they agreed.

Beginning December 19, 2008, the original 256 reels of approximately 380,000 images of the Archives of Maryland as it existed in December, 1946, and one reel of film of the transfer correspondence with the Huntington Library, will be on line from the permanent electronic archives vaults of the Maryland State Archives. They represent a new approach to providing archival records on line. They are in ebooks that offer the opportunity for the public to transcribe and annotate the records. They are also a part of larger project to engage incarcerated individuals in the indexing of historical records. Providing index access to historical records is by far the most expensive and labor intensive aspect of archival work for which most archives, including the Maryland State Archives, have virtually no resources.

Access to the Huntington Collection of Maryland State Archives Security Microfilm originates with the Maryland State Archives on-line Guide to Government Records, where records are inventoried as much as possible to the Series Unit level and associated with the agency that created them. In this respect the Maryland State Archives departs from the Record Group concept of the National Archives. We find that it is better management of records to begin with analysis of content in relationship to the purpose for which the records were created in the first place (a 'series') and associate the boxes, folders, cases, project files, etc. as series units with those series, linking them to any changes in the office of origin over time. In this case, TE 1, we have created an artificial electronic archival series related to the film we have borrowed from the Huntington Library and returned. It will be the permanent home of the images from this film from which the ebooks on line are derived.

Apart from reconstructing permanently Dr. Radoff's purpose of creating a slice in time of the most important historical records in his care by 1946, my goal was to demonstrate that with limited resources and a carefully thought out management plan, large quantities of authoritative images of permanent records could be made available for research and transcription/editing, and to provide a model that could be scaled for any size institution at modest to moderate cost. A manual on what to do and how to do it that includes modestly priced software and hardware recommendations will be available after December 19, 2008. Anyone interested should write me at

The Maryland State Archives Guide to Government Records provides the starting point for the use of this collection, linking the images of the volumes to the surviving originals and to any subsequent efforts to improve the quality of the images, as well as any indexing.

While Dr. Radoff and Governor O'Conor in making the gift of the microfilm to the Huntington Library characterized the collection as containing all the colonial records of Maryland State Government, they were mistaken. Notably missing from the film are the most basic land records of the State, the warrants, the patents, and the certificates of survey, that relate to original land grants. While these records were in the same building as the the records that were filmed by 1946, Dr. Radoff had no jurisdiction over them and would not until the 1960s. These records will be accessible electronically through the Guide to Government Records beginning December 19, 2008.

Over the years there have also been significant discoveries of colonial era Maryland public records in government offices and other repositories, such as the purloined Peter Force Collection of the Library of Congress, and the Scharf papers now at the Maryland State Archives. In time I hope these too will be added to our electronic archives for the benefit of future generations, as part of our continuing efforts to provide a modern disaster recovery plan that we hope will never again be overlooked or lost.

Edward C. Papenfuse
State Archivist and Commissioner of Land Patents
August 4, 2008

No comments: