From Pulp to Pixels: The Campus Past, Present and Imagined

As the department in charge of building and maintaining campus facilities and landscapes, Facilities Services accepts, processes and files massive amounts of documents, and is charged with the care and stewardship of these historic University records.

Just a few years ago, these materials filled hundreds of boxes and filing cabinets packed into the basement and attic of the Young Memorial Building, as well as at the ATS Building, Facilities’ warehouse on the eastern edge of campus.

The arrival of the digital age presented the University, along with most other large-scale institutions, with a challenge to adopt a more technology-friendly focus for ongoing work while at the same time electronically preserving decades of hard-copy documents for reference and research.

“The way we work with documents today is very different than even 10 years ago,” said Charles Maher, director, business applications and information management. “Working efficiently today means being able to quickly and easily access critical documents from a laptop, tablet and even a smartphone. Our challenge was to take our archive, which really is a snapshot of the physical history of the University, and transform it into a searchable, digital archive.”

In 2011, more than 1,000 drawers, boxes and cabinets contained Facilities’ hard-copy archives: construction and renovation documents, blueprints, manuals, drawings, letters, memos, and other materials compiled over the decades.

“It was really massive. It was overwhelming. Some of it was organized with labels, some of it wasn’t,” said Space Information Manager James Cook.

Those materials became Cook’s focus as he led a multi-year project to hand-scan and organize more than 200,000 pages of construction and renovation documents, landscaping drawings, operations manuals and other materials deemed critical for preservation into an accessible, easy-to-use digital archive. Cook and two interns worked diligently for two years and saw the bulk of the project come to a successful close this year.

Among the manuals and blueprints, a few historical gems were unearthed during the project. Important finds include: a 1902 landscape proposal for the main quadrangles drawn by Frederick Law Olmsted's landscape architecture firm; a 1955 preliminary campus master plan drawn by Eero Saarinen and Associates Architects and 1912 drawings of Old Stagg Field and Grand Stand by architects Shepley Rutan and Coolidge.

The digital document project began quietly in 2010 with a few interns scanning materials, but ramped up the following year when Cook took it over full-time. He, along with interns Isaiah Bradley, a student at The University of Chicago Lab School, and Rebecca Moss, an Illinois Institute of Technology graduate student, together have scanned 235,645 pages of documents.

The bulk of those materials, and the most precious and most fragile, have been scanned, made searchable with keywords and preserved, either with the Special Collection archives within the University library or with Facilities.

Generally, the University library stores the oldest and most unique documents and Facilities keeps copies of active files needed for day-to-day research.

“The University is very proud of its documents. We never want to lose anything that has any historical value, so that added pressure to make sure we could first preserve these archives digitally, and then also make it searchable and useful for us and other departments,” Cook said.

“And there was no deadline, just however long it takes, get this done. I admit I had some nightmares about it.”

While a significant accomplishment on its own, the digital archive has enhanced day-to-day work, especially for the Operations group, which relies on Facilities records to efficiently and carefully perform maintenance and repairs.

“Too often in the past, critical information was known to certain individuals, which made it difficult to make any type of informed decision quickly or accurately. Now relevant information can be located and retrieved in a fraction of the time it took to look up hard copies in a filing drawer,” said Robert Bandura, professional engineer manager.

“It also allows us to save and share documents in a central location, inside or outside the organization, which helps to foster an environment of open collaboration.”

Today’s projects are largely digital from inception, and thus do not create the issues associated with storing boxes of hard-copy documents and drawings.

But the archives were another matter. Cook admits the volume of reports, surveys, blueprints, drawings stunned him when he realized he’d need to handle each document individually.

To get a handle on the massive scale of the project, Cook grouped the documents into four smaller categories: permanent records that were more than 10 years old with historic value, historic “development project” documents more than 10 years old that detail a facility-related process or project, documents between 4 and 9 years old with short- and long-term value, and active documents needed for current work.

“Breaking it down into pieces was really the only way to get a handle on such a massive project,” Cook said.

 -- By Amy Lee, communications strategy manager

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