We perform historical research to investigate the history of a building, facility, technology, or process. This may be done to chronical the development and use of a particular material or technology or to understand the “state of the art” during a certain period of time. Historical research also provides information that allows us to better understand the systems and materials impacted by repair or restoration projects, particularly historic preservation projects. In our environmental practice, developing an understanding of the materials used during different periods in the history of a facility allows us to more accurately sample for potentially harmful materials, so that protective programs and remediation programs can be more accurately targeted.
It has been our experience that most of the information needed on a topic cannot be found simply through an internet search. Our historical research may start with a search engine inquiry, but this only provides initial clues about the location of the primary sources of information or documentation needed to accurately portray events, constructions or activities that happened in the past.
Historical research typically involves a significant amount of networking to identify credible and relevant sources of information, followed by searching through archives of actual hard-copy maps, photos, correspondence, business records, and other documents housed in locations such as state and local public libraries, non-public and industry-specific repositories, university architectural archival collections, historical societies, museums, and the archives of corporations, trade, and labor organizations. Sometimes it is possible to locate and interview “old-timers” – individuals who were involved back at the time – who may share information, suggest sources of records, or even have some old photos or records themselves.
Historical research is an interactive process going from one clue to the next until the primary source documents describing the history have been located. Once in hand, the source documents have to be collated and organized, so that a coherent history can be described and documented.
Researching the post-World War II era, and especially the 1950s through 1980s, can be particularly difficult. Documentation from this time in history is often not old enough to be kept by many museums or historical societies and yet often not recent enough to have been electronically captured or digitized. Our historical research in this area is greatly facilitated by our library which includes a large collection of technical manuals, handbooks, literature, product data, and other documents and resources from this era.
Sometimes it is possible to visit and document historical structures or facilities, which may be abandoned, turned to other uses, and, on the rare occasion, still devoted to the continuation of their historic use. In the past, our inspections of such facilities have provided information about the development of technologies, materials, and processes. For example, we have been able to identify the era of construction of each part of a facility, differentiate between original construction and additions, inspect equipment used for a process, and determine the materials and systems used at each point in the history of the facility.
Here are some examples of past projects that illustrate our approach.