Sunday, June 3, 2012

Historical Research in this Modern Age (or Scanning By The Dozen)

As I've been researching the San Jose - Los Gatos branch over the last few years, there's two key facts I've learned: there's a lot of great research material out on the Internet, and I'm much more likely to do research when I can do it sitting at home at midnight than when I have to go into a special library instead.

That doesn't mean I don't like libraries; I really love special collections. I had a great time last week, for example, spending a couple hours in the San Jose State special collections library looking at the John C. Gordon Photographic Collection originals, and found a few new photos of the U.S. Products cannery and a beautiful panorama of Del Monte's plant #3 in 1935, taken from the same vantage point as that only photo of the Abinante and Nola / J.S. Roberts / Higgins-Hyde Packing Company packing shed I'd found last year.

But those trips are rare; this was the first time I'd made it into the Special Collections library, and I'd only had the afternoon free because of some family business that required a day off from work. I've visited the same library's California Room and viewed their original Sanborn map books a few times, but it's still a rarity. I had a great afternoon at the California State Railroad Museum's library in Sacramento last year, but I don't know when I'll next be able to visit and look at their collection of valuation maps and Southern Pacific plans.

Instead, I do a ton of Google searches, poke through the photo collections for the different libraries that have put their images online, and read through the different books I've gotten over the years to do most of my research. Google's News Archive scans of old newspapers has been a particular favorite of mine (as has the California Digital Newspaper Collection. I also read through the different blogs and websites other railfans have posted, and reference or simply crib photos from other sites that are particularly interesting or highlight the stories I'm trying to tell. I also have a list of fruit-related businesses in San Jose in a Google Doc, and when I've got a few moments, I'll do a Google search on one and see what new links turn up. Google Docs - online spreadsheets and word processing documents - are a neat way to share railroad research with others, by the way.

So it's time to repay the favor and help share some documents so others can do these sorts of searches.

I saw an Ebay auction last week for Southern Pacific civil engineering drawings - plans of proposed sidings, track plans for small areas, plans for pipeline reroutings by third parties, etc. All the drawings were from the 1940's, and some were of San Jose, and I was hoping that some of the drawings might be for the Los Gatos branch. I suspected they all might be interesting for my Bay Area history bug, so I put in a bid, won, and on Friday had a pile of seventy-year-old vellum drawings in my eager hands.

But what to do with them? I could have just looked over them, shared the San Jose bits, and hid the rest off in a closet. But a friend, John Plocher, had just taken a box of Southern Pacific Bay Area slides he'd bought at an estate sale, scanned them all, and posted them all on Flickr for others to examine and enjoy. They're nice photos, except that every time the photographer had a great shot of a cannery lined up, a train came along and blocked the shot. Awfully bad luck, that photographer.

I followed John's example, and with about six hours of scanning and six hours of post-processing, all the drawings were online. Check the full set of images on Flickr, or look at the index of images and places.

I've got a lot of reasons for posting these on-line: keep the original drawings safe but accessible, return the favor for others who've published historic photos on-line, and curiosity about whether I could upload them all easily. However, my strongest reason for uploading all these was so that I could see what other people learned from these drawings. Check them out, and add comments on Flickr about the interesting details you see!

Some of the interesting details I've found already include:

Details on scanning: Luckily, all the drawings fit on my ten-year-old Epson flatbed scanner. At 300 DPI, it took a minute or two per scan, and the work was pretty mechanical; the worst part was trying to do other work while being interrupted every couple minutes to put on the next scan. Next time, I hire a local kid to help.

For each scan, I also renamed the file to match the engineering drawing number, and typed up an index listing the number of the drawing, the railroad station related to the drawing, the title of the drawing, date, and a set of keywords for related streets or interesting details. Flickr also allows longer descriptions, but I didn't realize that at the time. The index file was just a single word processing document set up for easy parsing by a computer program; just making a single file relating the filename, title, and keywords makes it easy for a computer program to manipulate the list or generate a web page straight from the index. The keywords and good descriptions are absolutely essential; there's a ton of great content out there on the web, but if there aren't good references to what's in the picture, no one will ever find it.

There's automatic ways to post photos up to Flickr; I've used iPhoto's export feature to send collections of photos up, but I've found setting keywords and descriptions can be time consuming and hard to mass-edit. I also wanted to be able to put up the scans now, but mprove keywords or add map locations later, so I wanted a way I could redo things later without re-exporting all the photos. Flickr, like a lot of web sites, document how you can modify your collections on the web site: write programs to automatically do uploads, or change details on the photo. I used a separate Python Flickr library to actually do the work, and wrote a little Python program to take all the scans and index material, and create or update the Flickr photo collection.

If you're interested in sharing your own collection of photos or drawings on Flickr, let me know and I can share the scripts I wrote with you.

Once again, I scanned these drawings because I'm curious what historic facts others will find, and so others can share details about the places they model. If you find the drawings interesting, send me a note, or, better yet, use the drawings in a blog post about your favorite Bay Area railfan spot and send me a link!

[Image of San Jose:Proposed Track to Serve Floor Service Co. from my collection, viewable on Flickr.]

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