- Viewpoint:Fieldwork, 2001
The success of the first children's crusade that founded the Vernacular Architecture Forum built an enduring organization, one that stands apart among scholarly societies for the simultaneous coherence of its members' methods and the diversity of its subject matters. A new generation is now coming into the membership of the VAF, bringing with it new assumptions and new perspectives about the built environment and our approach to it. Across the generations we share, or profess to share, an emphasis on fieldwork as fundamental to the serious study of architecture. But we should acknowledge that there are limitations to our favored method and seek to develop a more expansive understanding of our material. Many of us are already doing this: pursuing theoretical perspectives that promise to offer new insights into familiar material, and expanding our geographical and chronological reach far beyond our traditional strength in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of this effort, we should seek new ways to organize and pool our research in order to open our work to more wide-ranging analysis. The time is long overdue for us to learn from our colleagues in geography, astronomy, literary studies, archaeology, history, and the many other disciplines that have identified how computer technology can push their fields in new directions. We can best live up to the collective potential of our most collegial and cooperative discipline by working together digitally.
I write this article from an institution whose staff has long influenced the development of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Beginning in 1980, Cary Carson, Ed Chappell, Willie Graham, Mark R. Wenger, and Carl Lounsbury helped to develop a method for recording and interpreting that vast landscape of commonplace structures that holds significant information about the daily life of ordinary people in the Chesapeake.1 Members of the Architectural Research Department have carefully and systematically created a massive research archive of measured drawings, photographs, and written notes that are consulted for the design of new reconstructions or original scholarship. This collection is multiplied by similar repositories at other regional institutions that have pursued long-standing programs of field-based architectural research. These archives are growing. And they will continue to grow as long as there are buildings left to record and people with the skills to record them. As they expand, the archives become increasingly complete representations of the early American built environment and increasingly rich resources for current and future scholars. At the same time, they become less and less usable.
This is because nearly all of this material exists only on paper. Many thousands of field drawings, memoranda, slides, and photographic prints are organized by city, county, and site in teeming file cabinets in the offices of the architectural research department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. There are similar holdings in Annapolis, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; Newark, Delaware; and Washington, D.C.; and in the offices and closets of individual [End Page 1] scholars. But this precious, dispersed archive is only really useful to the people who created it.
A museum that makes nails over an open flame may seem an unlikely place to pursue a program of digital research, but our particular computing agenda is born of necessity. With the exception of questions concerning a particular building, an outside scholar (or a young one) trying to do systematic research in these tantalizing records is running a fool's errand. Consider a simple example, suited to a central purpose of our department, a reconstruction in Williamsburg's Historic Area. Where can one find a good drawing, say, of a double-sheathed shutter, showing the thickness of the boards used and their width? How about a photograph showing their nailing pattern? The answer is not to consult the comprehensive index to everything in the files—such a thing does not yet exist. The answer is to ask Willie Graham. More complex questions concerning, say, what the finish and relative status of dairies and smokehouses might tell us about the nature of domestic work are still more difficult to run down without looking through every single drawing and every single photograph, an increasingly impossible...