The HABS Culture of Documentation with an Analysis of Drawing and Technology

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The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is one of the oldest federal programs in the United States. In 1933, the HABS culture of documentation started with the mission of creating a permanent record of the nation's architectural heritage. Since the inception of the program, the formal documentation methodology has been measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories. HABS documentation accentuates the act of drawing as a mediating conversation between the documenter and the historic environment. In a typical HABS project, the documenter is immersed in the historic setting by hand measuring the structure and creating field notes. The documenter's intimate access to the artifact develops his awareness of cultural heritage and helps cultivate an appreciation for the compositional sensibilities of the architectural precedents. However, the HABS culture of documentation has been fine-tuned to incorporate a number of digital technologies into documentation projects. When projects involve issues of logistics, time, and cost, HABS professionals utilize a host of digital methodologies to produce measured drawings. Although HABS prepares deliverables to meet the archival standards of the Library of Congress, the hardware and software necessary to recognize digital files have a limited lifespan that makes them unacceptable for use in the Library. Only measured drawings that use archival ink on stable translucent material, accompanied by negatives on safety film, can be submitted to the Library. Thus, if HABS pursued only digital technologies and deliverables, the effects of this approach on the quality of the documenter's engagement with cultural heritage would pose a significant question.

This study addressed the question of how the HABS culture of documentation evolved in regards to drawing and technology, and how this relationship might be transformed in the future. Using HABS as a focus of inquiry is important in order to illuminate similar dynamics in heritage projects that utilize digital technologies. The methodology used in this study included a literature review, participant observations, and an analysis of documentation projects, as well as in-depth interviews with HABS staff, project participants, private practitioners, and academicians. The outcome of the study will be recommendations to heritage professionals for a future that resides in digital means without compromising the qualities that the HABS experience has offered to generation of documenters.