The Building Technology Heritage Library

Preserving buildings is one matter—gathering and maintaining the reference materials used in their construction is another, and one that is much harder to pull off. A new digital archive from the Springfield, Ill.–based Association for Preservation Technology International aims to change that. Its Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL) collects and shares scans of pre-1964 materials in the public domain, including architectural trade catalogs, house plan books, and technical guides that are routinely discarded and replaced with newer versions. It's worth noting that as cultural artifacts, these documents reflect the values and language of their times, in addition to the state of the industry they represent.

As Architectural Lighting’s sister magazine ARCHITECT reported last week, the BTHL was founded in 2006 but went digital only recently, in 2011, through the Internet Archive. Since then, it has gathered more than 7,000 documents from the late-19th century through the 1960s via donations from public and private collectors. The website receives more than 10,000 visitors each week.

The collection was conceived to aid the architectural preservation community in assessing older structures, says its founder Mike Jackson, formerly the deputy state historic preservation officer at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. But its audience has since grown to include researchers, historians, and other building specialists.

“I still subscribe to the theory that the greenest building is the one that already exists," Jackson told ARCHITECT. "So you better understand how to reuse what you’ve got. Preservation serves the larger sustainability mission."

We culled through the collection to find items that explore the growth of the lighting industry:


The Building Technology Heritage Library

This 1887 booklet from the Edison Electric Light Co. heralds the potential for electric lighting on workplace productivity.

The Building Technology Heritage Library

In a 1930 advertisement, the General Electric Company explains its development of an outdoor stadium lighting system that allowed athletic events to continue after dark.

The Building Technology Heritage Library

An advertorial circa 1935 by the commercial division of Westinghouse Lamp Company explains the aesthetic benefits of floodlighting in large-scale architectural applications and highlights the importance of coupling lighting design and traditional architecture practice.

“Today, owners of buildings and architects … are recognizing that the building whose beauty is extinguished by darkness loses half of its appearance value. To recover and preserve this lost value they are calling upon the electrical industry—the industry which meets the challenge of the ‘Twilight Zone’ wherever it is encountered.”

The Building Technology Heritage Library

Some of the materials take hyperbole to an extreme in heralding then-current developments in lighting technology. This narrative from Westinghouse circa 1935, for example, offers an (extremely) abbreviated history of mankind through its use of light, employing dated views of race and gender.

“Light is indeed the symbol of progress,” the text exclaims. “It has illuminated the roadway over which mankind has traveled from the dark stumbling paths of the past to the highway of the future.”

The Building Technology Heritage Library

Hygrade Sylvania Corp. tells of the development of fluorescent lighting with its aptly titled advertorial, “The Dream of Scientists Becomes an Accomplished Fact,” circa 1940.

“Daylight was the fixed and ever challenging standard toward which lighting engineers and inventors have been working for over six decades,” the text explains. “Despite the tremendous advances and improvements in lighting, there still remained—until recently—the unreached goal of reproducing daylight electrically and at low cost.”