A Librarian’s First Impression of Langsdale

My first encounter with Langsdale Library happened in 2006, when I was a graduate student at a university about 45 minutes down the road. Sure, I’d already lived in midtown Baltimore and worked at an art school up the hill for five years, walking to work every day through UB’s campus. But my eyes opened wide when I learned that an influential community history initiative known as the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, written about so honestly by the public historian Linda Shopes, was held in Langsdale’s Special Collections.

Thanks to the efforts of UB librarians to put information about archival collections online, I was able to browse related material on Baltimore City history. Wow, was I impressed! All these years, I’d walked right by the library, completely unaware of the unique resources it held! Eight years ago, the question struck me: “Why is all this stuff at UB?”

The answer to that question is an urban sociologist named Ted Durr, in conjunction with successive generations of librarians, archivists, and historians who shared a belief in the importance of documenting the people, neighborhoods, grassroots organizations, and institutions that shaped Baltimore’s history in the 20th century. Durr used federal grant funding in the 1970s and early 1980s to run an experimental archives known as BRISC, or the Baltimore Region Institutional Studies Center.

All over the country, it was an exciting time to be working in local history. The nation’s bicentennial celebration and the enormous popularity of the novel and miniseries Roots inspired historically high levels of public interest in, and support for, the archival endeavor. But as the political climate shifted in the 1980s, federal funding for BRISC and similar projects nationwide quickly evaporated.

What’s remarkable about the archival collections at the University of Baltimore is that they are still here, long after BRISC’s doors were shuttered. Talented and committed history faculty continued to work with the library to grow the archival program started by Durr and his colleagues. Records seen as “too new” in the 1970s have matured into valuable materials that document the dynamic changes that transformed Baltimore in the second half of the 20th century.

We have now entered a period when the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the programs of the Great Society are all “turning 50.” These anniversaries mark the transition of recent events into history, and with that passage, scholarly attention invariably increases. The archival collections at Langsdale are more relevant than ever. That’s something to be proud of.

I invite you to listen to an interview with Ted Durr about his experimental archives. Explore our collections online, check out our historic photos, download and remix our amazing local news footage, or contact us for more information.

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