The Challenge of Preserving Digital Architectural Drawings

Construction of the National Museum of the American Indian, July 2003, digital photograph, Smithsoni At the Archives, we’ve recently begun working with some digital files of architectural drawings that were made for various exhibits and building projects over the past few decades. Some of the ones I have personally been working on include architectural drawings and construction plans for the National Museum of the American Indian. The original files were created in 2003; SIA received them in 2006, and we’re just beginning to tackle the problem of how best to preserve them. Because of the amount of time that has elapsed since the files were created, and the range of computer aided design (or CAD) programs that exist to create files like these, preserving them turns out to be quite a challenge. Complicating things even more, we are not just dealing with conventional architectural drawings of floor layout plans, but also with more specialized types of drawings, for example, for printed circuit board files that I’ve recently learned are known as Gerber files. (Oh, the things you learn as an archivist! Little did I know I’d be rubbing elbows with electrical engineers on online forums in order to figure this out!) A typical 2D CAD drawing -- this one portrays an aerial view of the plan for the National Museum of Though it’s not entirely obvious, there are many reasons to keep architectural files of projects that have been completed. It is necessary to keep a record of the structure, design, and details of a building in case someone (such as an architect or engineer) ever needs to refer to it in the future. Another reason, which is often the case with exhibits, is that the actual built project may no longer exist, so the drawings may be the only record of the event. Preliminary drawing of the entrance and the Rotunda of the new United States National Museum buildin Back in pre-digital days, when architectural drawings were drawn on paper, originals could easily be stored in an archive by simply rolling them up or placing them in a flat file drawer. Although digital technology and computer-aided design have radically transformed the practice of architecture, they also raise interesting challenges for archivists charged with preserving building documents for the future. Being able to access these digital files depends on what file format they exist as, whether currently available software still supports them, and making sure that information in the files properly translates when it’s converted into to another format. Usually our best strategy is to convert these kinds of files—which can be proprietary and in a closed format, meaning they sometimes can be opened only by the program that created them—to a non-proprietary or open format that can be opened on different software systems and even different operating systems. Using formats that are accessible through different programs, as well as choosing file formats that are widely used in the digital community as a whole (such as TIFF for images, and PDF for text documents and some CAD files), can help to ensure that the files will last much longer in digital form than if we left them in their original proprietary software, simply because more people will be able to access the files using basic programs that are already on their computers. For these types of unique files, as well as other specialized digital file formats, methods of conversion and preservation are slowly evolving. The goal, as time goes by, is to keep developing new preservation strategies to insure that these files remain available to Smithsonian employees and the public alike in the future. That mission will never truly be over as long as technology and file formats keep evolving and changing. But, of course, that’s what makes it is such an interesting and exciting time to be working in an archive, right now!

Jessica Scott is an Electronic Records Intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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