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Through a Scanner Carefully: NACA's Delicate History
In a plain, windowless office at NASA's Langley Research Center, Jeremy Vann is digitizing aeronautics history — one delicate document at a time.

Jeremy Vann

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Jeremy Vann is in the process of scanning 50 cubic feet of NACA research authorization files. The files are part of a larger collection at NASA Langley's Technical Library. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Jeremy Vann's Desk

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Vann uses staplers, tape, staple removers, pliers and even a razor blade as he prepares the RA files for scanning. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman


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Documents that include handwriting, like this telegram, can be difficult to scan.


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Inverts, documents that have white print on a dark background, are particularly difficult to scan. The photographic paper they're printed on creates a haze on the scanned image.

Though he feeds the documents into a large, high-tech scanner, most of his tools are decidedly low-tech. Next to Vann's computer you'll find at least three different staplers, a tape dispenser, a staple remover, a pair of pliers and a razor blade.

The tape is useful when one of the documents gets torn going through the scanner. The pliers and razor blade come in handy when he needs to remove stubborn staples.

"Just to even get to this document right here, I have to go through these staples," Vann said, flipping through a stack of papers on his desk. "Then there are staples behind these."

"You could spend 20, 30 minutes just removing all the staples and paperclips and binder clips," said Sally Schwaner. Schwaner is a senior librarian and digitization manager at NASA Langley's technical library, which is home to approximately 220 cubic feet of historic National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) research authorization (RA) files spanning the years 1919 to 1952.

Vann is in the process of scanning 50 cubic feet of those RA files and turning them into PDFs. "It's very tedious work," said Schwaner. As tedious as it may be, according to NASA's chief archivist Jane Odom, the work Vann is doing is also tremendously valuable.

The digitized RA files will be a "treasure trove for historians," she said. Odom cites "Engineer in Charge," a history of NACA written by aerospace historian James Hansen, as an inspiration for the project.

"I think this really captures the broad essence of what we are trying to do — digitize and make available to a broader audience materials documenting 'Langley's four decades as the flagship research facility of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics,' " she said, referring to a passage in the foreword of Hansen's book.

Odom also references a passage in which Hansen calls the RA files "the single most important source for aeronautical history at Langley." Hansen goes on to say that the RA files "permit the historian to recreate the entire NACA research procedure for a given project from the raw research idea through the final polished report."

Gail Langevin, NASA Langley's liaison to the headquarters history office, echoes Odom's sentiment, and adds that the files could very well have more than just historical significance. Tucked away in some of the documents may be ideas that modern researchers could find useful.

"There may be a research area that was taken to a certain point and then there was some other technology that prevented it from going further, so you stop," she said. "And then other technology areas advance and you can come back to that idea."

She offers hybrid- or blended-wing aircraft as an example. Though the hybrid-wing concept was popular in the years just after World War II, Langevin said, researchers largely abandoned it. But in recent years researchers have returned to hybrid-wing concept. In fact, not long ago, researchers tested a model of a hybrid-wing aircraft in NASA Langley's 14 x 22-foot Subsonic Tunnel.

Odom and Langevin both point out that the scanning is also part of a broader effort to prepare for the upcoming 100th anniversary of NACA, which was founded in 1915. "We anticipate a little bit more interest in some of the accomplishments of the NACA," said Langevin.

They'd like to see the scanning continue after Vann finishes this initial batch, a task scheduled to be completed by the end of August. "We hope to be able fund additional scanning of the RAs in the future as this is a large and historically valuable collection," said Odom.

The plan for the current batch of files is to put them on disc and make them available by request to the entire NASA community, and eventually the public. Researchers at NASA Langley will have special access to the files.

"We're putting it on our Langley digital repository, or LDR," said Sue Miller, a technical information specialist at NASA Langley's technical library, "and that'll be on a database, but that's only available to onsite Langley personnel."

In the meantime, Vann continues to scan the RAs, being careful to ensure that everything is clear and legible, which can be tricky. A lot of the documents are on onionskin and carbon paper. Many have faded handwriting on them. Particularly difficult, said Schwaner, are the inverts — white print on a black background.

"And not only that," said Schwaner, "it's white print on a black background that's on a type of old photo paper that produces noise when you scan it. Even if there was nothing on the paper, it will produce a haze on the page. So trying to get writing to show up on that is not easy."

Vann has been up to the challenge, though. Carol Herbert, who has 30 years of experience dealing with records, is running quality control on the project. She said she's given Vann lots of tips on getting the best possible scans — and he's learned a lot.

"He does an excellent job of scanning these documents," she said.

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman