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Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, and Historic American Landscapes Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs Division

Collection Profile

Historians, secondary school teachers, architects, homeowners, and set designers are some of the many people who turn daily for both information and inspiration to the HABS/HAER/HALS collection—the records of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). They benefit from viewing images of national landmarks along with technical drawings and photographs that explain the construction of sites ranging from houses, churches, and jails to metal foundries, railroad stations, and cranberry bogs. Insights into family, cultural, and architectural history also come from ready access to documentation of structures as diverse as Indian pueblos, Spanish missions, sod houses, kitchens, and the Rose Bowl Stadium.

Charles E. Peterson conceived the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) while working for the National Park Service (NPS) during the Great Depression. In late 1933, Peterson proposed a project to employ 1,000 out-of-work architects and draftsmen for 10 weeks to document "America's antique buildings" systematically before they vanished. That special project soon expanded into an ongoing program through a cooperative agreement among the Library of Congress, the American Institute of Architects, and NPS. HABS has also inspired two companion programs called the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER, formed in 1969) and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS, formed in 2000). All three NPS initiatives continue to document new sites each year. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division provides public access services as well as archival preservation for the resulting records.

The collection is one of the most heavily used special collections in the Library of Congress. The encyclopedic coverage of America's built environment, the exceptional clarity of the visual materials, and the general lack of copyright restrictions account for thousands of online catalog searches each month. In more than 35,000 surveys, researchers can discover a comprehensive range of building types, engineering technologies, and landscape features dating from pre-Columbian times to the present day and located throughout the United States and its territories. The multiformat surveys total more than 60,000 measured drawings, 250,000 large-format black-and-white and color photographs, and numerous written historical reports. A major digital conversion initiative at the library has helped researchers explore this rich visual collection through an online catalog.

Books based on HABS/HAER/HALS already fill several library shelves. The new W. W. Norton/Library of Congress Visual Sourcebooks for barns, canals, lighthouses, and bridges show hundreds of HABS/HAER/HALS images. At least one murder mystery, Artifacts, uses HABS records in its plot. The library's Learning Page provides activity ideas related to gold rush and missile defense sites, motion picture palaces, and authors' homes to encourage educators and students to delve into United States history, critical thinking, and the arts and humanities. Like the Association of Research Libraries, HABS is reaching its own 75th anniversary and can look forward to a long future of stimulating exploration and discovery with new generations of researchers.

Collection Profile and Overview: Helena Zinkham
Illustrations: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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