The French Can Do It

Why not us? The French naval archives, with thousands of drawings, are available online.

I think that Google could start small, and do a trial in cooperation with the US National Archives (NARA).

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Google says there are 130 million books

They say so in their blog.

So what’s a few hundred thousand engineering drawings? Google, scan our drawings!

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Where are the drawings?

I can only speak of my limited experience with shipbuilding drawings. Of course, a few can be found in books, as mentioned in my first post. But most exist today in museums and university collections. Some of these institutions make copies available, but you usually need to visit in person and pay handsomely for the copies… managing and copying large format drawings is not cheap, and I doubt that the prices charged represent a profit center for the institutions. So why not make them available online, if someone is willing to scan and index them?

A few examples:

  • Bowling Green State University in Ohio houses the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, which contain archives, photos, and drawings of many of the ship builders from around the Great Lakes.
  • The Benson Ford Research Center contains the archives of the Ford Motor Company– hugely important in itself, but also loaded with images of Ford’s Marine Department.
  • The Mariners’ Museum houses the archives of Chris Craft and Hacker boats… classical woodies!
  • PT Boats, Inc. owns the archives of Elco, the famous PT boat builder… thousands of photos and microfilmed drawings… and these microfilms are of better quality than those owned by the National Archives!
  • The National Archives have huge collections from the government and the military.
  • And I have talked with others who are sitting on uncatalogued and unavailable documents, underfunded organizations with no way to index much less scan and post their collections.

The list is probably as long as the list of museums and universities that have some interest in maritime activities… and again, this is just for the narrow area of ship building. Now imagine civil engineering, railroads, aircraft, automotive, and computer industries!

What can be done? A great example is the Historic American Engineering Record, HAER, which is in the National Parks department.  While they primarily document old structures with new drawings, they have been able to make their documentation available online through the Library of Congress at the “Built in America” site. I’ve written about this at my model ship blog, Matthews Model Marine. Of course, they are completely underfunded, so progress is slow.

What can we do? I have no clue, so I hope to hear ideas from YOU. I’ve written to a big black hole at Google… maybe there’s some other way to get their attention? So, please post comments and ideas!

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Scan the Drawings!

I want Google to scan our drawings.

Google has a well known project underway to scan all the world’s books– Google Books. The goal is worthy, to make all printed knowledge available online, and moreover, to allow cross linking and references to identify the most important knowledge… with an underlying hope that Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson don’t swamp the statistics.

But as an engineer, model ship builder, and amateur historian, I’ve been disappointed with their treatment of technical books. Many of the books I am most interested in contain detailed drawing on “plates” and foldout inserts. It seems that the Google scanning process is unable to capture this information… perhaps it’s the scanner, perhaps it’s the underpaid and unmotivated undergrads who do all the scanning. You can see an example when viewing the 1920 Shipbuilding Cyclopedia. Visit Plate XVII on scan page 423… you get only one page of a fold-out plate, not the entire image. Then visit the end, at scan page 1088, to see what happens when the undergrad gets in a hurry! No respect.

This needs to be fixed. But I have a bigger fish to fry… not all knowledge is in books. Books are convenient– there are a lot of them densely packed into libraries, and they’re relatively easy to handle, so a scanning project is manageable. But huge amounts of engineering history are contained in large format drawings… the very plans used to build our technology and our country! Just in my little niche of ship building history, I can point to sources sitting on tens, hundreds of thousands of moldering drawings. These are rolls and boxes of vellums and microfilms, all incredibly rare (each one may be the only copy extant) and hard to to access.

Would a project to scan all these documents in all engineering fields be easy? Of course not. The collections are far flung, and the media hard to handle and requiring of special scanning equipment. But WHO, besides a Google, could hope to do it? Who has both the imperative to “do good”, and the finances to pull it off?

So I say, “Google, scan our drawings!”

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