Center for Research Libraries - Global Resources Network

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Capturing America’s Scientific History through Technical Report Literature

Maliaca Oxnam
Associate Librarian, Science-Engineering Library, University of Arizona & TRAIL Chair 2010–12


Cover of Environmental Contamination from Weapon Tests report (New York: Health and Safety Laboratory, United States Atomic Energy Commission, 1958). From TRAIL collections.

To many, the explicit record of the technical details and progress of scientific experiments may seem overwhelming; to scientists and historians, that detail is essential. Technical reports have long been recognized as a means of documenting scientific progress to specialized audiences of researchers. Contributing to the continued development and growth of science and technology, technical reports are often distributed by industry, research organizations, and the federal government. Reports range from several pages to several hundred pages and may contain maps, blueprints, schematics, data recordings, and descriptive text.

When polled, those who are familiar with technical reports often tend to think of publications from the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With the Internet and decreasing costs of scanning technology, these agencies have done much to increase access to their more recent publications and are striving to digitize and make their older literature more available in digital format. Other preceding agencies and government-funded laboratories have less stewardship and remembrance for these scientific technical reports.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of federal research and development money have been invested in the development of this science. Scientists, engineers, and historians depend on these reports that document scientific history. Improved access to the legacy report literature allows researchers to connect to past research relevant to their current projects, and in some cases eliminates the need to recreate the original research.

The Technical Report Archive & Image Library (TRAIL)

Most large research libraries have sizeable amounts of federally funded technical research report literature in their collections, often housed in their science and engineering libraries, their government document collections, or some combination of both. However, researchers and librarians still find reports in these collections difficult to identify and locate for several reasons:

  • Dissemination to libraries has occurred through a variety of agencies and organizations over many years, often based on institution profiles, creating incomplete sets of reports.
  • Science, technology, and medicine indexing sources contain limited bibliographic access and control; often more than one index must be consulted to retrieve essential information about a report.
  • Collections are usually available in some combination of print and microfiche, which may differ between institutions, and are difficult to access without known citations and mediation to navigate through the various collections and specific institutional organization strategies.
  • Depending on institutional preferences and availability, some collections of reports were produced and distributed using poor quality media, resulting in disintegrating and unusable pieces of collections.
  • Most library catalogs and bibliographic utilities include only access points at a broad series level and even fewer records for individual technical reports in their online cataloging systems, making it difficult for users to determine the availability of reports at a title level in local library collections.
  • Most legacy reports are not accessible in electronic format and are difficult to acquire via interlibrary loan.

With these challenges in mind and awareness that researchers today want access to materials in digital form from common discovery points such as Google, many librarians from universities and research institutions from around the country have avidly responded with interest in improving user access to these legacy research
report collections.

The Technical Report Archive & Image Library (TRAIL) aims to:

  1. Acquire, digitize, archive, and provide unrestricted, persistent access to the technical report literature published by research institutions and government agencies as a requirement of federally funded research. Preference is given to report series where there is no direct agency stewardship and/or no plans for digitization.
  2. Assemble and validate a complete set of physical materials to be held at an institution(s), serving as an archive, in case of problems with the digital version.

TRAIL achieves the following direct benefits:

  1. Researchers, nationally and internationally, will have open access to important information resources previously only available through mediated assistance in localized collections throughout the country—a trial-and-error
    method.
  2. The national initiative will maximize investment returns from federal funding and research efforts and ensure that an archival collection of technical reports documenting research results achieved over the past 100 years is
    maintained.
  3. University libraries may choose to remove incomplete sets and difficult-touse groups of legacy reports from their collections, freeing up valuable space for collection growth and development of learning environments.

The Origins of TRAIL

In fall 2006, the Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA), in partnership with the Center for Research Libraries, formed TRAIL to explore the feasibility of acquiring, digitizing, and providing access to early technical report literature. For any one institution to tackle a comprehensive digitization and preservation project of the technical
report literature would be resource-intensive to say the least, so a collaborative effort with libraries, agencies, and societies all contributing to the development and growth of the digital collection was needed. The following timeline outlines key milestones in the development of TRAIL:

  • 2006—TRAIL taskforce formed by GWLA and CRL; initial project feasibility assessed.
  • 2007—TRAIL released a pilot collection hosted by the University of Hawaii (see http://digicoll.manoa.hawaii.edu/techreports/index.php). A partnership with the University of Michigan increased the scanning capacity for digital conversion of technical reports, and allowed subsequent deposit of digital items with the University of Michigan and later HathiTrust.
  • 2008—TRAIL working groups revised process workflows to accommodate increased scanning capacity through partnerships.
  • 2009—Secured partnership with the University of North Texas as a digital archive for materials requiring special handling or materials and series unique in nature.
  • 2010—TRAIL formally becomes part of the Global Resources Network at the Center for Research Libraries; University of Washington develops new TRAIL federated search interface (expected release in October 2010), allowing users to search across reports deposited with the University of Michigan (and HathiTrust)
    and the University of North Texas, further increasing access to the technical report series acquired and processed to date.

To learn about specific series and viewing inventories for items cataloged and processed to date by TRAIL, a list by series name is available at http://traildb.library.arizona.edu/collections.

To Get Involved with TRAIL

TRAIL is a multiyear collaborative effort with libraries, agencies, and societies all contributing resources and efforts to develop an openly accessible collection of digital copies of technical reports. This collection will allow users to easily search and access historical reports previously available only in print and microform formats. In addition,
member institutions collect complete sets of hard copy (paper or microform, as appropriate) technical reports and place them in archival storage.

A digitization and preservation project of this magnitude needs strong coordination and oversight. The TRAIL Steering Committee of elected representatives convenes biweekly to discuss project management, sustainability, and issues across four primary areas: 1) Content Selection, 2) Content Cataloging & Digitization, 3) Content Discovery
& Delivery, and 4) Reference & Communications. A working group oversees each area:

Project Management & Sustainability
Overseen by: TRAIL Steering Committee
Key Work Areas:

  • Considers and formulates the policies and procedures governing TRAIL in accordance with the recommendations of the membership
  • Conducts the business of TRAIL
  • Approves and enacts project activities
  • Discusses and recommends future policy or changes in policy to be adopted by the membership
  • Makes budgetary decisions for TRAIL
  • Approaches funding agencies
  • Conducts periodic membership drives
  • Maintains communication with scholarly and professional associations, government agencies, and other cooperative projects

Content Selection:
Overseen by: TRAIL Collections Working Group
Key Work Areas:

  • Responsible for all aspects of the project related to the identification, selection, and acquisition of report series for scanning and placement in the print archive
  • Assesses inventory holdings and formats of technical reports at interested institutions holding major print collections of technical reports
  • Determines content digitization strategy (which collections are digitized and in what priority)
  • Manages commitments for contributing documents for digitization and archival storage
  • Oversees inventory of processed collections; note and seek missing reports
  • Validation of completed sets of report series

Content Cataloging & Digitization:
Overseen by: TRAIL Central Processing Working Group
Key Work Areas:

  • Manages and records receipt of all physical items for digital conversion and cataloging
  • Manages digital conversion processes for all items
  • Determines digitization requirements (in collaboration with the Technology Working Group)
  • Catalogs all items included in TRAIL
  • Manages physical shipments to digitization partners
  • Oversees quality control processes
  • Ensures delivery of digital items to digital preservation partners

Content Discovery & Delivery:
Overseen by: TRAIL Technology Working Group
Key Work Areas:

  • Determines digitization requirements (in collaboration with the Central Processing Working Group)
  • Identifies metadata requirements for system functionalities
  • Manages search interface for TRAIL collections
  • Manages digital repository structures for TRAIL materials

Reference & Communications:
Overseen by: TRAIL Reference & Communications Working Group
Key Work Areas:

  • Responds to all requests for assistance from TRAIL users
  • Coordinates all communications on behalf of TRAIL
  • Manages content on TRAIL Web pages and TRAIL search interface
  • Manages all orientations for new project participants
  • Develops and provides training on materials in TRAIL

It is important to note that institutions do not need to contribute physical collections to the project in order to participate. There are many opportunities for librarians to contribute intellectual input and advisement to the project through the working groups noted above. For more information on the project and joining TRAIL, visit http://www.crl.edu/grn/trail/about-trail.

TRAIL’s Next Step

Currently TRAIL has collections of technical reports stored in multiple digital locations, in disparate systems, with similar, but not identical, metadata fields associated with the reports in each location. To streamline access to its collections, TRAIL is building a user interface that will offer both simple and advanced search options so that users will be able to search across those multiple locations and return a single results set.

Information technology staff at the University of Washington Libraries is designing the interface. The simple search option will allow a user to enter a single or multi-word search argument and retrieve a results set that can then be  further refined if desired. Through the advanced search, users can do field-specific searching (title, author, report number, document type, date, and issuing agency) and combine terms using standard Boolean operators.

Once a result set is received, the user then can use facets (date, author, subject) to choose selected terms from a list to further narrow a search. The reverse is also true: if a searcher uses a facet to narrow a search and the results set is too small or specific, a facet can easily be removed to expand the results set.

Selecting a specific item will give the user a brief catalog record, displaying the title, author, place of publication, date of publication, subject terms, and a link to the digital copy of the work, regardless of its location.

Look for the TRAIL interface update in October at www.technicalreports.org.

Feedback on TRAIL

Within the last three years, the TRAIL project has received feedback from all over the country and around the world affirming the value of the newly available materials:

In reference to NBS Monograph 93, Spot Diagrams for the Prediction of Lens Performance from Design Data (1965), a Massachusetts resident commented,

“The 25 year old copy of the monograph that I have was destroyed by water . . . finding it online makes me very happy! Please pass on my great appreciation to all those who have put together this very valuable service.”


A researcher from Washington state referenced the U.S. Bureau of Mines Bulletin 188, Lessons from the Granite Mountain Shaft Fire, Butte (1922):

“Thanks for providing this old bulletin online! I know that many people are interested in USBM documents, including my researchers, and usually the preference is for digital copies. You might get quite a few hits on these old docs.”

The president of Old Forge Coal Mine Inc. wrote:

“I can’t begin to express the gratitude and research potential your site has provided to us.

I am the president of the Old Forge Coal Mine Inc., an all volunteer non-profit educational and historical archive for the coal mining history, heritage, and industries that supported coal mining for the town of Old Forge, Pennsylvania.

Thanks to TRAIL, I am able to find and download Bureau of Mine Bulletins pertaining to my area that the Bureau of Mines and Office of Surface Mining in Pa. don’t even have in their libraries at Pottsville and Wilkes-Barre.

Your site has made my research efforts a lot easier, saving weeks of time and travel expenses.”

The president of a business in South Africa referenced USBM 406, Contributions to the Data on Theoretical Metallurgy: VII. The Thermodynamic Properties of Sulfur and Its Inorganic Compounds (1937):

“I am working towards the commercialization of a modification of the original thiogen process from 1917. The full report will be invaluable to my work. We have already incorporated some aspects of the original citrate process, also in your database, in our gypsum-to-sulphur pilot plant currently in construction.”

An engineering professor from Cambridge wrote:

“I was delighted to find NBS memorandum number 122 (The Mechanics of Pneumatic Tires [1971]) available in digital form.”

From an engineer in France:

“First of all, I want to congratulate the TRAIL team for the job you are doing. Making all those old reports easily available will certainly make life easier for many people. In my case, as I live in Europe, it is hard to find even paper copies of the USBM publications. Ordering them from GPO takes a couple of weeks, probably because of shipment.

I found the TRAIL Web site while I was Googling for USBM bulletin no. 672, The Thermodynamic Properties of Elements and Oxides (1982). Thank you again for the great job you are doing.”