Addressing the Challenge of Preserving Born Digital Design Records

In a recent blog post, digital archivist Mark Matienzo wrote about the efforts being made at Yale to preserve the increasing volume of digital records being acquired by Manuscripts and Archives, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and other units of the University Library.  One type of born digital record that is particularly challenging to preserve is the architectural drawing and other design documents created by architecture firms.  In recent years, architects have increasingly abandoned the process of designing on paper, and instead have used software programs such as CAD (Computer-aided design) and now BIM (Building Information Modeling) to generate drawings and complex models that are made up of a series of multi-layered and interconnected computer files—files that can be difficult to recover due to their varied formats and the continually-changing nature of the proprietary software packages.  Given the realities of contemporary architectural practice, how can repositories who collect design records promise to preserve and provide access to these born digital materials?


Yale University Art Gallery elevation, by Egerton Swartwout, 1929


Architectural drawing #1, by Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, circa 1968/2010

I recently attended a two-day conference in London, England, “Archiving the Digital: Current Efforts to Preserve Design Records,” which aimed to address this question. Jointly sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the conference brought together archivists, curators, preservationists, and records managers from across Europe and North America to discuss what steps firms and institutions have taken thus far to preserve digital design records and what further steps should be considered, from emulation of proprietary software programs to migration of data to common file formats.  What the conference revealed is that resolution of this issue will require—as Mark pointed out in his blog post—a great deal of collaboration among archivists, architects, technology experts, and others.  Although much discussion is still needed, the conference was a positive step forward, an opportunity to contemplate the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital revolution within the design community, and to begin formulating a preservation strategy ensuring the survival and accessibility of these records well into the future.

Papers of Architect Shepherd Stevens

Shepherd Stevens in his room at 5 rue Palatine, Paris, France, winter 1904-05

Shepherd Stevens in his room at 5 rue Palatine, Paris, France, winter 1904-05

The Shepherd Stevens Papers (MS 865) is one of many collections in Manuscripts and Archives that document the career of an architect affiliated at one time in his or her life with Yale.  Stevens, who was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1880 and died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1962, taught architecture at Yale from 1920 until his retirement in 1947.   The papers include extensive lecture notes and other materials from Stevens’s teaching career, but what is equally fascinating and historically significant is what these papers reveal about Stevens’s education and training as an architect.  From 1899 to 1903, Stevens studied architecture at Columbia University, and in 1905 he went on to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris—at the time one of the world’s premier schools of art and architecture. While Stevens was one of many Americans enrolled at the École, he was among a more limited number of foreigners to complete the full course of study in architecture and earn an École diplôme.

Students outside Beaux Arts, Paris, France, about 1906

Students outside Beaux Arts, Paris, France, about 1906

The papers offer a rare insight into the life of an American architecture student at the École and the particular educational requirements of the Beaux-Arts curriculum.  Included in the collection are many photographs of Stevens and classmates; original drawings and sketches Stevens completed for competitions, credits, and entrance to the school; and sketchbooks in which Stevens captured the various architectural sites he encountered during his extensive travels – journeys of discovery that were expected of students learning the history of design.

Sketch of Taj Mahal, from Shepherd Stevens’s sketchbook, 1903-04

The papers also comprise numerous diaries in which Stevens recorded his daily activities; correspondence with friends, colleagues, and family members; travel documents and itineraries; and drawings of some of the architectural projects Stevens pursued as a practicing architect.  A finding aid listing the contents of this rich and valuable collection of architectural records is available on the Yale Finding Aid Database.