The Building Technology Heritage Library

The digitalization of trade brochures and other useful documentation for home & building preservation has never looked so good.

Published in 1914, The Natco Double House is an 80-page catalog by the National Fire Proofing Co. 

Courtesy Building Technology Heritage Library

With the advent of technology, along comes our ability to track resources in a paperless, easily searchable way, thanks to the Association of Preservation Technology (APT) who has put a tremendous amount of effort digitizing archival building materials catalogs, ads, direct mail materials and other ephemera, so building preservationists can have a world of research at their fingertips. The once throwaway paper brochures have been given new life, revived and organized for home and historic building devotees alike.

In 2010, the APT in conjunction with Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based non-profit digital library with a mission of “universal access to all knowledge,” established the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), generating an online archive of these historic technical documents so that it’s useful to a wider audience. The BTHL is a free online digital library with more than 9,500 unique documents printed before 1964, materials come from various library, museum and private collections.

A Sears Building Materials catalog from 1929.

Courtesy Building Technology Heritage Library

What does this mean for historic homeowners? It means they are in luck! With a wealth of highly valuable information sourced at one central web address, it’s now possible for everyday old-house owners to tap into these catalogs to serve as sources for renovation and preservation. The public domain materials are available to the general public free of charge.

This library is an incredible wellspring of historic building materials, style, and decorating guidance coming straight from the original sources. You’ll find a treasure-trove of sorted, digitized content all searchable by year, topic, sub-collection, creator, or keywords.

Bricklaying & Simple Building for Amateurs is a wealth of information.

Courtesy Building Technology Heritage Library

Establishing the library to make it readily available to the public, however, was no small feat. Technical, descriptive papers such as the historic trade catalogs are filled with text and overflowing with graphics, photos, and marketing information.

APT is a professional membership organization with 1,500 members in 30 countries. While records of existing buildings and places are preserved in numerous locations, technical documents, the ones describing building products, and trade catalogs are not typically widely distributed. However, the formation of the BTHL changes that. These digitized materials will “make it easier to understand, interpret and preserve the historic places.”

The Roofing Catalog No. 9 from E. E. Souther Iron Co.

Courtesy Building Technology Heritage Library

“Trade catalogs, because of their relatively short lifespan and commercial nature are not found in most architectural libraries. While the focus for APT was the technical value of these materials for preservation professionals, they will ultimately serve a much broader community,” says Mike Jackson, FAIA, who serves as co-chair of the BTHL along with Dean Koga.

Providing historical evidence of the great prosperity of the 1920s and a fondness for period homes (Colonial Revival to Spanish Revival), the 20s catalogs are plentiful, more than any other decade with over 1,700 to sift through. A majority relate to residential design and planning, a prelude to the product catalogs for residential construction and renovation.

Jackson says, “The direct mail marketing of trade literature to homeowners really expanded greatly in the 20th century and these materials make up a large number of resources. The collection of house plan catalogs—there are about 1,000—is a noteworthy example.”

How to Search

Access to the library is available in two ways—primarily via the website but there are also well-categorized Pinterest boards that serve as a secondary resource. The library continues to grow as APT receives additional funding. The library itself has over 50,000 monthly users. Searching is made simple by entering in basic keywords related to what you’d like to research, such as Sears, Frank Lloyd Wright, or wallpaper. Another option is to use the filters along the lefthand column to sift through. Fair warning: Once you get started, it’s hard to stop!

Mike Jackson, FAIA, who is leading the effort to build the Building Technology Heritage Library.

“I know of one homeowner in the Chicago area who is restoring his 1939 house and has used the BTHL extensively for research,” says Jackson.

However, the collection comes to a halt in 1963 because trade catalogs past this date still remain in copyright. Jackson mentions that from the 1990s on, technical commercial literature becomes increasingly digital.

Who knows, perhaps one day this process can merge with BTHL into one giant resource. One can only dream.

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