Project Description and Selection Policy

This site will present blueprints of American maritime vessels designed before 1923. Blueprints will be digitized and contextualized through the use of explanatory text and images. The initial group of blueprints will serve as a testbed for the process of digitizing and distributing formerly hard to find blueprints of interest to scholars and the large online community of maritime enthusiasts.

There are a few institutions, such as the Mystic Seaport museum, which sell copies of ship plans to interested parties. Such organizations are unlikely to be interested in undercutting their own revenue. Instead, this project will focus on collections at institutions that are not focused on maritime issues, but have nevertheless preserved collections that include blueprints.

The specific cutoff date of 1923 was chosen to avoid issues of copyright. More generally, ship plans from after the 1920s are more likely to be more available or at least in better condition than earlier blueprints.

Using New York University as the project headquarters and institutional base, the program will digitize blueprints onsite at various archives in the Northeastern United States. Based on the principle that it is better to build incrementally than start with a large-scale project, initial work will begin at two sites. First is the Alfred Olcott Hudson River Steamboats Collection at the New York Historical Society. Second is the John Lenthall Collection at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia (although the collection is owned by the Franklin Institute). The two collections are quite different. The Lenthall Collection contains over five hundred ship plans, from approximately one hundred different ships, dating from 1790-1874. In contrast, the Olcott Collection includes blueprints of a score of ships dating from 1893-1925.

The Olcott Collection is suitable as an example of the majority of expected collections to be digitized under this program. This is because it is small, obscure, and housed in an institution that does not emphasize maritime affairs. Furthermore, the blueprints in the collection are likely the only ones in existence for these particular ships. In this case, the selection policy is highly inclusive.

The Lenthall Collection is a more ambitious target. As a large collection housed in a maritime museum, the collection is both more accessible to researchers and more vulnerable to damage from use. Although much of the collection consists of unique blueprints, many others are duplicated in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. For this collection, it is necessary to be more discriminating in selecting blueprints for digitization. First priority should be given to plans of ships that are not known to have any other existing blueprints. Second priority would be for unique blueprints of ships that have different blueprints elsewhere. Other blueprints would only be digitized if they were considered particularly useful for scholarship and unlikely to be digitized elsewhere in the foreseeable future.

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