The goal of the Contrails project is to help preserve and disseminate the technical record of 20th century aerospace research, highlighting in particular the research endeavors of the Illinois Tech community.
The bulk of the Contrails' digital collection consists of pdf files of published technical reports scanned from paper originals. Contrails' focus is on United States Air Force technical reports from 1949 through the 1980s, which are much less consistently available online when compared to those issued by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).
Since the center of aerospace research for the Air Force is the laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the majority of the reports are the results of research performed by the staff or contractors of those laboratories, with many of them issued by the now-defunct umbrella agency, Wright Air Development Center (WADC). However, Contrails also provides access to reports publishing research from other locations, such as the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC), Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee.
Contrails staff scans all reports from paper originals, and works to ensure that when possible, scanning results in pdfs preferable to those scanned from microfiche, which is the format from which older reports available from the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) tended to be digitized. Some situations where Contrails versions of reports may be preferable include those with foldout pages, black and white photos, and color.
To truly trace the origins of the Contrails project to its beginnings, one has to start with the materials research conducted by Illinois Tech faculty and Armour Research Foundation researchers during the 1950s. In particular, IIT and ARF were involved in materials research for the United States Air Force and generated technical publications reporting their findings, published by the contracting laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
Having been contracted by the Department of Defense on cutting edge materials research, it should come as no surprise that some of the reports that were generated were considered sensitive by the government. Due to this fact, researchers were sent only the reports that impacted their research, on a “need-to-know” basis. For this reason, Illinois Tech received not only copies of the reports that were generated by the research on campus, but also those having to do with materials research done at other universities, defense contractors, research institutes and the laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base themselves.
Over the ensuing decades, the significant volume of reports held by Illinois Tech in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department became intrusive, and the reports became the responsibility of the Mies Campus library. In addition to the reports concerning materials research previously mentioned, there was a significant collection of reports covering medical research that were originally received by the American Medical Association and subsequently donated to IIT. This has been further augmented by donations by contractors and government agencies, both foreign and domestic, as well as university libraries and individual donors. These additional reports cover a wide array of topics, such as flight dynamics and aero propulsion.
The staff of the government documents depository grew aware of the value of the materials through patrons coming into the library for research assistance. Citations for materials that included the acronym "WADC" in the report number became an instantly recognizable cue to check the "yellow and black reports" in the basement. WADC is the acronym for the Wright Air Development Center, which was an umbrella agency for the labs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base from 1952-1959. Staff made note of the fact that the materials being requested were in some cases four decades old but had retained the interest of researchers into the 1990s. This led to the creation of a basic database file with report metadata in order to better find the appropriate reports and in anticipation of the possible digitization and posting of files for public viewing on the Internet.
If the previous description represents the "gestation" of the Contrails project, then its birth came at the point when funding for scanning equipment was secured. At the turn of the century, scanning ensued, and a website was created. The Wright Air Development Center Digital Collection went live! Not long after digitization began, the WADC Digital Collection faced its first threat. Staff was informed by the Department of Defense that some of the reports that had been posted weren’t public and needed to be taken down. This included reports with public availability statements printed inside the cover, and this problem remains to this day. Staff worked with the Department of Defense staff to reduce the number of affected reports and in so doing kept the project viable. Although staff concentrates on digitizing the clearly public reports that have yet to be scanned, an effort is also ongoing to identify other reports with evidence of previous public availability that are still considered "limited distribution" by the government, with the hope of freeing them from restrictions.
In 2005, the Wright Air Development Center Digital Collection was rechristened as Contrails. Since donations of technical reports received by the Paul V. Galvin Library allowed the project to expand its scope beyond solely the Wright Air Development Center as an issuing agency, calling the collection the "Wright Air Development Center Digital Collection" had become constricting and inaccurate. The name Contrails was chosen to indicate a broadening of the scope of the project while simultaneously differentiating the project from the actual defunct Wright Air Development Center.
The project continued onward for the next decade, with a major innovation being added; the ability of users to request digitization of unscanned reports via email. As time passed, the platform and site aged and the time came for a change of platforms and a site redesign. The new site was unveiled in 2016, aligning the project with current web standards and adding additional search functionality.
From February 2001 through April 2002, the site consisted of hand-coded html, with reports displayed in tables and titles hyperlinked to provide access to the pdfs.
From April 2002 until 2016, the site was builton Microsoft Active Server Page technology. Though the site was rechristened in September 2005, the site architecture remained unaltered.
The current version of the site utilizes the open-source web publishing platform Omeka software, with improved search functionality offered by Apache SOLR.
Contrails verifies via The Defense Technical Information Center (www.dtic.mil) that a report has been approved for public release prior to scanning and posting.
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