Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reflections on a year as President of the Baltimore City Historical Society

A Treasure Salvaged from Poplar Grove

As my term as president of the Baltimore City Historical Society comes to an end, I was asked by the editor of the newsletter to reflect on the year past and offer suggestions on the future course of the Society. Having spent over 40 years salvaging and making accessible the surviving historical records of Maryland, including this original map of the first Eastern Shore railroad, I decided to offer suggestions on how to fill in the holes of what we know or would like to know about the history of Baltimore and the rest of the State by making best use of the virtual world.

While I am still unclear as to how I was selected for the position of President, it has been a pleasure to preside over a board of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Baltimore is fortunate to have such a locus of interest in its history. The passion for making the past come alive and to reach out with the City’s history is impressive. The heightened public interest by the Society's efforts is well reflected in the attention paid to the Facebook page and the attendance at the numerous outreach programs.

As I pass the gavel (figuratively speaking--I am keeping my Agnew gavel from the wood of Government House) to Councilman Kraft, I have two suggestions with regard to strengthening the Society’s role as the promoter of the city’s history, suggestions that have evolved from my recommendations made at the beginning of my term. While I still think raising funding for intern staff for area repositories would be a sensible investment in preserving and making accessible the archives of Baltimore History, an even more productive use of money raised might be in the creation of a reference resource in cooperation with the Baltimore City Archives, the Baltimore County Historical Society, the Baltimore Bar library, the Maryland State Archives, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Both suggestions relate to my personal quest to learn more about Baltimore’s past. For example, when exploring the history of a house in Fell’s point for a talk I gave, I found that one of my subjects had a summer home and farm in what is today Waverly. By tracing the story of the farm in the private records of the Martenet company (on line for a fee through a marvelous atlas created by Joel Leininger), I was led to an obscure chancery case at the Maryland State Archives containing a plat that showed not only his investments, but also those of two other prominent ship captains/merchants in Fell’s Point. Their stories were not of immediate interest on my part, although inter-related, and I filed what I learned in my notes. How helpful might those notes might be to someone seeking information about my subject’s partners and associates, yet they are buried in my research binders. In the future, who would be able to find them, or even know that my notes exist. In all likelihood those binders will reach the dustbin on my passing, and the stories associated with my subject’s business partners will disappear with them. As the song popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1959 reminds us, their “fate is still unlearned.” How then might we learn and build on what I and many others more skilled than I have done, emerging richer for the experience?

There is a crying need for an an authoritative dynamically growing encyclopedia and virtual repository of Baltimore City History, similar to what the Maryland Humanities Council attempted for Maryland History, but more on the collaborative model of Wikipedia. Creating a mediawiki for Baltimore History is neither expensive nor difficult (the software is free and creating the necessary server environment does not have to be costly top of the line). It could be in the ‘cloud’ (that mysterious nirvana of all electronic information) shared out and participated in by all institutions concerned with Baltimore history, through used equipment based at, say, the renovated Peale, with a permanent address (static IP) provided gratis by Verizon as a public service. While this all may sound mysterious because IT and Web service professionals like to make it sound that way to protect their business interests, it need not be. The great advantage of the open source movement and non profit models like wikipedia is that there are a lot of young minds who are willing to help out at minimal cost to keep access to the virtual world of information as free and open as possible. Indeed the future of democracy rests on how widely and inexpensively verifiable knowledge can be accessed. The future of Baltimore history rests on how easily verified and verifiable information can be located and added to, whether it be the history of the Star Spangled Banner, a biography of James Biays, the owner of the now forgotten estate of Mt. Jefferson in Waverly, the oral histories of the women’s movement of Charles Village, the life of the Baltimore newspaper editor, actor, turned Baptist preacher, or the real story of a house on Ann Street in Fell’s Point. Give it a home that is linked to the cloud, a modest equipment and maintenance budget, and a staff of professionals and volunteers, and the virtual world of Baltimore History will not only be permanently maintained and secure, but kept vibrantly accessible.

There is also a market for an inexpensive virtual research and writing environment for Baltimore History, designed to entice anyone seriously working on some aspect of the City’s past. Family history, neighborhood history, topical blogs, biography, all could be researched and drafted within an on-line research and writing environment similar to that offered by Google. In fact it could be Google, as long as it was backed up and stored locally on servers linked to the Baltimore City History wiki. For example, all of the good research and drafting of what is now currently being presented on any number of excellent Baltimore history related blogs could have its origins and its backup in a research, note taking, and drafting account on servers dedicated to a sustainable virtual archive of Baltimore related history. It would be a virtual sandbox, so to speak, where writers and teachers of topics related to Baltimore History could safely store and work with their notes and writings, secure in the knowledge that at some point their research notes could be accessed and built upon by others. If Google based, there would be no charge for service of backing up, save for a membership in the Society, with the benefit being a part of a permanent virtual archive.

How much would it cost to launch such an ambitious undertaking in the cause of Baltimore History? I estimate that, given a safe and secure space to house the virtual environment, that an initial investment of $20, 000 and annual maintenance support of $30,000 a year would be sufficient to get both up and running. Local corporations should be willing to underwrite, especially if the wiki included brief corporate histories and suggestions for further study (just recently we were asked to supply a speaker for T Rowe Price for which they offered an honorarium). To make it work would also require a team of oversight editor/managers, one paid, the rest volunteers. At minimum with benefits that might cost the equivalent of Research Foundation of State University New York Editor III - Global Studies Media Content Specialist Salary, or $52,611 a year, , and that too could be funded by annual corporate giving targeted for that purpose. In all $102,611 to launch the first year (assuming space is provided), and $85,000 a year thereafter.

For the prototype of what is suggested here as a wiki
for Baltimore City History see:

At this point I can see the shaking heads and they are not all in agreement. Are these two related objectives, something the Baltimore City Historical Society should be doing? If not, who?

If nothing is done along the lines I have suggested, it is my opinion, perhaps, only mine, that so much of the good work that has been done, and is now underway on the history of our city will be lost to obscurity within a few years. The irony is that today we have available to us search engines that provide remarkable access to information on-line in helpful ways that we could not have imagined two decades ago when Yahoo, Bing, and especially Google,  began taking over the world of what we know and how we know it. But if we don’t find a way to push what we do know and discover about Baltimore’s history into what Google, etc. mines and keep it there perpetually, we actually will know less about our city and ourselves in the decades to come than we do now. The books will have been sold to collectors, paper notes and valuable ephemera will have been tossed by our executors, and the virtual manifestations of our work on our hard drives, in our blogs, textings, telephone, and email communications will have evaporated into the ether leaving no trail and our history 'still unlearned.'