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The Impact of Historical Federal Technical Reports

Esther Crawford
Department Head, Kelley Center for Government Information and Microforms Rice University
Sinai Wood
Associate Professor & Government Documents Librarian Baylor University


Diagram of a uranium scrap drum shipping container. From Nuclear Safety in Manufacturing Plants by James E. McLaughlin (New York: Health and Safety Laboratory, United States Atomic Energy Commission, 1959). From TRAIL collections.

What may look like long-forgotten, dusty government documents found in the recesses of most major libraries are actually relevant technical reports still invaluable to researchers around the world. Many libraries hold technical reports as part of government documents collections the Government Printing Office distributed to their depository libraries. This program, known as the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), requires retention of materials in accordance with federal law and regional procedural guidelines.

With space at a premium and facing current economic realities, many libraries feel the burden of housing and maintaining the large volume of depository materials. These libraries might not retain older technical reports, already difficult to identify and locate, in the future. A number of libraries, including two regional depositories, tasked with retaining all items received through the FDLP, have given up depository status in recent years. The Technical Report Image and Archive Library (TRAIL) project provides an advantageous situation for all concerned parties. Researchers do not lose access to needed technical reports; library administrators can begin to reclaim space for other uses; and librarians can provide improved and permanent access at little or no cost. Most importantly, these legacy technical reports will continue to impact the work of researchers for untold years to come.

TRAIL is diligently finding, collecting, cataloging, and digitizing pre-1975 federal technical reports on the verge of disappearing. By polling science and government documents librarians, reviewing “Appendix B: Federal Executive Agencies Terminated, Transferred, or Changed in Name Subsequent to March 4, 1933” from the United States Government Manual, and using tools such as the Guide to U.S. Government Publications, TRAIL indentifies technical report series as candidates for digitization.

TRAIL contacts current agencies to make certain that efforts do not duplicate any digitization plans. Many agencies have digitization projects or plans, and TRAIL reviews many factors before including a series in the project. To date, TRAIL is collecting and digitizing technical report series from the following federal agencies: Atomic Energy Commission, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Department of Commerce, Energy Research and Development Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Science Services Administration, Federal Energy Administration, Fish and Wildlife, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Bureau of Standards, National Science Foundation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Saline Waters, and the United States Bureau of Mines. The Web page Series in Process allows researchers to see what series are being considered for digitization and the processing status of different series.

The rarity and sometimes historical significance of the digitized reports make TRAIL unique. For example, the Manhattan Engineering District issued the Manhattan District Declassified Code (MDDC) documents in association with work on the Manhattan Project, the secret atomic bomb project in the 1940s. Some of these documents, such as Element 94 in Nature, were once secret reports mailed from Berkeley, California, to the “Uranium Committee” in Washington, D.C., in 1942. The Effects of Radiation on Hemopoiesis discusses the effects of chronic radiation exposure. The Manhattan District Declassified Code technical report series is one of many series from the Atomic Energy Commission being digitized. Both academic and public libraries are contributing their copies of these documents to TRAIL for digitization and permanent access.

TRAIL is also digitizing the vast body of technical reports produced by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which includes a variety of topics including energyefficient heat pumps, the time signal, and the metric system. The agency explored research into energy alternatives including electric and solar energy, a topic of increasing current interest. In the 1920s, NBS began continuously broadcasting the time signal via radio station WWV, a service continued today by WWVB, operated by NBS successor the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The NBS adopted the metric system as its standard in 1964, preceding the effort to convert the United States to the system in the 1970s.1 By digitizing these reports, the TRAIL project has made certain that the work of this interesting agency remains available and accessible to the public.

The digitized reports found in TRAIL have affected researchers around the world. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Mines Bulletins series have provided researchers with information still useful today. USBM Bulletin 133: The Wet Thiogen Process for Recovering Sulphur from Sulphur Dioxide in Smelter Gases: A Critical Study has been used for current mine operations, and USBM Bulletin 627: Flammability Characteristics of Combustible Gases and Vapors provided relevant information on the flammability of gases.

These digitized technical reports also have practical aspects for researchers. The online accessibility eliminates the weeks of wait time it takes to order and receive print copies. For one researcher, print copies were no longer available from the issuing agency. Others have noted that the TRAIL site eases research efforts, saving time and travel expenses.

The TRAIL government documents and engineering librarians continue to search for pre-1975, federal technical report series to add to this well-received legacy project. They welcome any suggestions from colleagues and the scientific community on other report series to review for digitization or an agency to review for potential technical
reports. Please contact TRAIL for suggestions or comments.