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About the Process

HABS/HAER written historical and descriptive data pages.
HABS/HAER written historical and descriptive data pages.


Historical research enables us to gain a greater understanding of historic structures and sites, and thus plays a central role in HABS/HAER recording. In producing written documentation, the historian places the structure within the appropriate context, addressing both the historical and architectural aspects of its significance. In discussing the origins and subsequent development of a structure, the historian also examines its relationship to regional and national trends, and considers associations with important persons or events. The history compliments the existing-condition drawings and photographs by documenting the changes and additions to the structure.

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Producing written documentation involves collecting and investigating historical information and graphic documentation, analyzing the site or structure in question, and then synthesizing these elements to provide a better understanding of a site's historical importance. As much as possible, historians are asked to base their reports upon primary source materials such as inventories, wills, and tax assessments; company records and annual reports; correspondence, letters and personal interviews; trade catalogs, period newspapers and accounts from professional and trade journals, and relevant secondary or published material. Published material provides general background, sets the overall context for the period in question, and compares the site with others like it.

For an architecturally significant site, the process may involve chronicling the design and construction process and the roles played by architect, builder and owner. Factors that may have influenced the design range from geography and building technology, to regional or national trends in architecture, influences of its owners. In other instances an association with important persons or events distinguishes the site.

With structures or sites of interest to the history of technology, it is the development and application of engineering or industrial processes that are the focus of the recording efforts. Typical subjects for investigation are the origins of a particular technology; the timing of its diffusion; the relationship between technological developments and the history of an enterprise or site; the relationship of a particular technology or engineering practice to the landscape (as in park road systems); and technology and the organization of the labor process.

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HABS generally uses an outline format because it provides a checklist of the information being requested and ready accessibility to specific information. HAER favors a narrative format report that can take either a chronological or thematic approach depending on the complexity of the structure or site, or the number of factors that play into its significance.

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The HABS outline format begins with the "Historical Information" section which dicusses the date of erection, architects, builders and suppliers, owners, original plans, and additions and alterations. The "Historical Context" that follows allows the historian the opportunity to build a case for the importance of the site, and is presented in a narrative format. The "Architectural Information" section is largely descriptive. It begins with a discussion of the architectural character, communicating why the structure is of architectural interest or merit. The outline is a discussion of the historic landscape features and how the site played a role in defining the architectural form. The outline format ends with a bibliography, and acknowledgments. It can be varied as needed to address specific types of sites, such as historic landscapes. The alternative short-form report is an abbreviated version of the outline format. This form is generally used when part of a larger survey, or to accompany the documentation of structures or sites of lesser significance.

The HAER critical narrative format successfully captures development and/or implementation of engineering principles, innovative and/or surviving technologies, and extractive/manufacturing processes. The critical narrative format permits the development of broad themes that place the site or technology into historical context and underscore its particular significance. Critical narrative format seeks to avoid the merely descriptive in favor of interpretation that seeks to explain the significant aspects of a site to a literate audience conversant in discussion of engineering and technology.


When ready for inclusion in the HABS/HAER Collections, histories are printed on 8 1/2"x11" archival bond paper. At the Library, the pages are placed with its other documentation in three-ring binders in the reading room.

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