Environmental Scan

Question 1

There are numerous websites that purport to provide blueprints. Most of them require payment, such as the truly hideous http://www.floatingdrydock.com/. Of the free sites, by far the largest is http://www.the-blueprints.com/. The goal of this site is “to provide reference material for 3D modelers, scale modelers, replica builders etc.” By volume, the website is quite impressive. The category of cars alone contains 12,476 entries, which does not include the 1,843 in motorcycles, 2,232 in trucks, 423 in buses, or 3,955 in tanks. There are 6,840 blueprints of ships, vaguely organized. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of the blueprints are poor quality sideview drawings without notation or a given source, aside from the name of the person who submitted it. All blueprints are simply images of varying size, without added value. Aside from modelers, it seems unlikely that anyone would find the website useful. The owner of the website (presumably) has wisely added his site to be the only external link on the rather anemic Wikipedia entry for blueprint (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blueprint).

A small, but impressive collection of blueprints can be found at “The Dreadnought Project” (http://www.dreadnoughtproject.org/plans/). The author of the website has managed to find 170 plans of German warships of the First and Second World Wars. He is somewhat reticent about where he found them; perhaps he realizes the lack of validity in his claim of copyright over the items. Nevertheless, the scans are of excellent quality. He notes that the scans were made at 300-400dpi and reduced to 100dpi JPEGs. There is an attempt at contextualization for each ship class, but it is understandably limited.

Among maritime museums, the premier source of maritime blueprints is sprawling Mystic Seaport (http://www.mysticseaport.org/). Their collection of over 100,000 drawings is open to researchers. However, it is open only on Thursdays and Fridays from 10-5. Otherwise, specific plans can be ordered from them at $40 apiece, plus shipping. Members have a ten percent discount. Of course, the collection is only partially catalogued and the catalogue entries consist only of the name, length, and type of the vessel and designers and builders, as well as the date of the blueprint. Except when they are unknown, which they usually are. If a researcher is not satisfied with paying significant amounts of money for vaguely documented plans, he or she is welcome to fill out the plan research application, which costs $75 an hour for commercial clients and $50 an hour for everyone else. They might be able to tell you something in six to eight weeks. It seems unlikely that Mystic Seaport would be willing to participate in a digitization project, as it would undercut their business.

Question 2

The three collections to be digitized in the project are the “Alfred Olcott Hudson River Steamboats Collection” (hereafter referred to as the Alfred Olcott collection), the “John Lenthall Collection,” and the “William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company Collection” (hereafter referred to as the William Cramp & Sons collection). The first collection is at the New York Historical Society, while the latter two, although owned by The Franklin Institute, are at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia (formerly known as the Philadelphia Maritime Museum).

The Alfred Olcott collection has a basic finding aid online, which has been somewhat sloppily converted to EAD (http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/nyhs/olcott.html). Minimal information is provided about the several hundred blueprints, which make up folders 41-61 of series III (oversize materials). The finding aid also omits the related “George W. Murdock Collection” of pictures and biographies related to the Hudson River Day Line. Most of the blueprints are of vessels from the Hudson River Day Line. The only known author to make use of this collection was Donald C. Ringwald, a former employee of the Hudson River Day Line who later became editor of the journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America. In 1965, he published Hudson River Day Line: The Story of a Great American Steamboat Company, which was heavily based on the Alfred Olcott collection (see the review in The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3 [Jul. 1966], 320-1). Although the book contains many drawings and photos, it only contains a single blueprint, that of the vertical beam engine of the Mary Powell (p. 55). Seven years later, he published The Mary Powell: A History of the Beautiful Side-Wheel Steamer Called “Queen of the Hudson.” This book focused on the most famous ship of the Hudson River Day Line and again relied heavily on the Alfred Olcott collection. These rather obscure books are difficult to find, although in 2004, the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM) gained the copyright when it acquired the Ringwald’s collection. The HRMM’s website contains the lengthiest history of the Hudson River Day Line available online (http://www.hrmm.org/steamboats/dayline.html). The website design is dated and navigation is not intuitive. No blueprints are available. The New York State Library has a small online exhibit that includes information and photographs of some of the ships of the Hudson River Day Line (http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mssc/steamboats/dayline.htm). The library has some photographs and other material about the Hudson River Day Line in “The Fred B. Abele Transportation Collection” (http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/msscfa/sc22662.htm) and the “William B. Elmendorf Papers” (http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/msscfa/sc11970.htm). More oddly, the genealogical website “Access Genealogy” has a webpage which consists of transcriptions of documents relating to steamboats on the Hudson River (http://www.accessgenealogy.com/newyork/hudson/hudson_steamboats.htm). It is not clear where one document ends and another begins, let alone where any of them came from. Despite the faults of these websites, they are evidence, along with the two published works, of interest in the line and its vessels.

The John Lenthall and William Cramp & Sons collections are quite different from the Alfred Olcott collection. Both have outstanding finding aids available at http://www.phillyseaport.org/Museum_Library-Guide_Note.shtml. The 1991 publication of the finding aids received very positive reviews in both the local Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 117, No. 3 [Jul., 1993], 237-9) and the prestigious Journal of American History (Vol. 79, No. 4 [Mar., 1993], 1721-3). The praise is well deserved, the detailed finding aids provide not only excellent descriptions of the items, but useful contextual information about the vessels. Small parts of both collections were microfilmed for The Franklin Institute and the Making of Industrial America in 1987.

In the case of the John Lenthall collection, the 518 ship plans have certainly been consulted by some historians. A known instance is the 1998 book Tidewater Triumph: The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner by Geoffrey M. Footner. In 1949, Howard I. Chapelle’s History of the American Sailing Navy included a few items from the collection. This is not surprising, the collection includes such famous vessels as the Revolutionary War frigate United States and the frigate Mississippi (Commodore Perry’s flagship when he “opened” Japan). Lenthall is considered one of the crucial early figures in the history of the United States Navy, as evidenced by the naming of a Henry J. Kaiser class fleet oiler, USNS John Lenthall (T-AO-189). It is typical of both the amateur enthusiasm for ships and the lack of online sources that the undistinguished career of the ship is far better documented than the man it is named after. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has an entry for the ship, but not the man; while two websites provide pictures and details of the vessel (http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/19/19189.htm and http://navysite.de/ao/ao189.htm). Both website are fairly typical of naval history enthusiast websites, lots of data combined with a hideous design that is clearly unchanged since the websites were founded in the 1990s (in this case 1996 and 1999 respectively).

The William Cramp & Sons collection is the largest of the three, consisting of roughly 2,300 plans. Technically speaking, there are actually three separate collections, the primary 1,900 plan collection from the Franklin Institute, 243 plans from the Atwater Kent Museum, and 150 plans from the Independence Seaport Museum itself. In practice, the three collections, all located at the Independence Seaport Museum, are treated as one. The collection also contains nearly 2,000 photographs. Some of the ships in the collection are quite famous. They include the 19th century US Navy warships New Ironsides, Terror, Indiana, and the one-of-a-kind dynamite gun cruiser Vesuvius; the pioneering transatlantic steamships Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; the first American dreadnought, South Carolina; and the Great Northern, known to the world as the “Galloping Ghost of the Pacific Coast.” This collection has also been used by historians, such as Thomas R. Heinrich in his 1997 book Ships for the Seven Seas: Philadelphia Shipbuilding in the Age of Industrial Capitalism (reviewed in The Public Historian Vol. 20, No. 2 [Spring 1998] 93-5).

Question 3

Unfortunately, there are very few examples of projects that digitized blueprints. Those that exist are of irregular quality. For example, the collection of Pullman train car blueprints from the Newberry Library (http://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm4/index_nby_pullman.php?CISOROOT=/nby_pullman) are well described, but most of the images are far too small to be legible. However, some of the images are of immense size. There does not seem to be any reason for the differences.

Sometimes blueprints are digitized as part of a broader project. An example is the small “CSS Alabama Digital Collection” developed in the mid-1990s at the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama (http://www.lib.ua.edu/content/libraries/hoole/digital/cssala/main.htm). In 1998, the designers published a report in The American Archivist (Vol. 61 [Spring 1998], 124-34) detailing their work documenting the career of the most famous vessel of the Confederate Navy. Among the Hoole library’s collection is “a full-scale copy of the plans of the ship” (p. 128). The resulting digitization is less than impressive. Three plans were scanned (accessible from http://www.lib.ua.edu/content/libraries/hoole/digital/cssala/plans.htm). The first is a side view of the masts and spars of the vessel, which includes a detailed table of the dimensions of different parts of the mast. The table was transcribed, which was necessary due to the tiny size of the image scan, an obviously cropped 679x351 pixels. The other two plans (of the lower deck and inboard works) are each chopped into two overlapping images in order to fit easily on the screen. These are larger images, but are still too small to make all of the writing legible. Nothing better expresses the advancement in internet speed than the fact that the user is warned that the last two plans are large files. Their size? Under 150kb.

The best implementations of digitized blueprints are both projects that contain hardly any blueprints. The Minnesota Digital Library’s “Minnesota Reflections” project (http://reflections.mndigital.org/index.php) has only nine blueprints out of nearly 45,000 images. The scanning is excellent, but there are problems when attempting to use their controlled terms, apparently due to the different contributing institutions. The magnification is also not ideal, as it has to reload the page for each change in magnification area. The University of California’s “Calisphere” website (http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/) is similar. Out of hundreds of thousands images, there are less than a score of blueprints. The strange part is that while most images are provided without attempts at magnification, a few (http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt1b69r6m6/?brand=calisphere) have a complex magnification system. The quality of scans is also extremely varied due to the different contributors.

One of the websites that influenced this project is “Lincoln and his Circle” from the University of Rochester (http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=379). Specifically, the method the website uses to provide magnification is intriguing. It consists of a rectangular box that can be dragged up and down the document. Aesthetically, it is excellent; using it feels like using an oddly shaped magnifying glass on a physical object. For the purposes of the “Lincoln and his Circle” website, it works quite well. However, there are a number of major drawbacks to using it for blueprints. There is only one level of magnification and only two options for the size of the magnification box (which only changes the vertical size). A different implementation of the same method of magnification is at the online exhibition “Hand Bookbindings: Plain and Simple to Grand and Glorious” (http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/hb/index.html) at Princeton. This time, the magnifier box is square and has three different sizes, but still only one level of magnification. The creatively named “magnifier” (http://blog.persistent.info/search?q=magnifier) developed by Mihai Parparita has the further appeal of being written in JavaScript and available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

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