Digitizing DukEngineer

2014-06-06 10:03

When you’re perusing seven decades’ worth of prose from mostly unguided undergraduate engineers, there are bound to be a few surprises–as the team at Duke Libraries who digitized the entirety of the DukEngineer’s archives found.

One of the first covers of the DukEngineer from December, 1940
They turned up detailed explanations of how drinking-bird toys work and coverage of the latest egg-drop competition; lengthy technical articles on microelectronics and aeroelasticity alongside poems celebrating spring on campus; odes to the slide rule and earnest discussions of the newfangled television; painstaking diagrams of complex systems and cartoons poking fun at faculty members; jokes in questionable taste (that were routinely questioned by administrators at the time) and even—for a few misguided midcentury years—a  Girl of the Month feature highlighting “co-eds” on campus.

One of the longest-running student publications at Duke, DukEngineer was founded in May 1940, during the first academic year of the College of Engineering, with the hopes (as its editor put it) that “This publication will develop into a record of the progress at the College of Engineering.”

 It began as a free, mimeographed publication, but rapidly took on a more professional air, asking for a paid subscription of $1.00 per year and then $1.50. There were also pages of paid advertisements in the ‘40s and ‘50s from companies such as IBM, Westinghouse and US Steel.  At the height of its businesslike boom, the post of magazine editor was hotly contested, with election races written up in the campus newspaper. Over the years, though, the ads and paid subscriptions were dropped, and the pace of the issues began to slow.

The magazine skipped a year in 1976-1977 with little more than a note in the subsequent issue about the student volunteers getting refocused and reorganized as an explanation. In the 1980s the publication merged with the engineering alumni magazine; it is currently mailed free to 11,000 alumni and friends once each year. And, of course, it’s still chronicling Duke Engineering from the perspectives of its students.

Explore the DukeEngineer Digital Collection

“It’s interesting to see how DukEngineer has changed over the years,” said Melanie Sturgeon, librarian for engineering, physics and computer science. “It used to be more of a social newsletter, using only people’s first names or nicknames, and talking about clubs and societies or who got pinned or engaged. And then there were the war years where students dressed in uniform for class and the issues included reports about students who had been killed overseas.”

Sturgeon got a first-hand view of the publication’s metamorphosis as the lead on the project, which began when she started making inroads in the Pratt community as the new engineering librarian. Minnie Glymph, director of communications for Pratt, suggested that the Library could help preserve the history of the school by digitizing the entire DukEngineer collection in celebration of Pratt’s 75th anniversary.

Sturgeon jumped on the idea and soon began rounding up all of the old issues. Most were bound together in the Library Service Center, but for scanning purposes, loose issues were preferred. Sturgeon hunted for these in the University Archives as well as in the boxes upon boxes of old issues collecting dust in the basement of the Teer engineering building.

When the idea was first put forth to digitize the entire canon of the student-run DukEngineer magazine, it seemed like a straightforward proposition. The school was celebrating its 75th anniversary, so there should be roughly 75 issues of a few dozen pages to scan into the archives.

Nobody realized that at different points in its history, the magazine had published up to six times per year.  All told, Sturgeon ended up with 205 issues comprising 9,065 pages of Duke engineering history that needed scanning. And Duke’s Digital Production Center (DPC) was more than equal to the task.

“The digitization of the DukEngineer wasn’t even all that big of a project for us,” remarked Zeke Graves, a digitization specialist with Duke Libraries. “But it certainly was an interesting one.”

After rounding up the issues, Sturgeon handed the project off to Molly Bragg, a projects coordinator in DPC, whose digitization team relied on some good old-fashioned German engineering to get the project completed before spring commencement.

Read more about the digitization of DukEngineer from Duke Libraries

The workhorse of the digitization process was a Zeutschel scanning machine, which looks a bit like a gigantic modernized overhead projector. The technician manning the station opens the document and lays it as square as possible under a piece of glass. A horizontal line of light quickly scans down the document while the overhead camera tracks and images its progress. Once the light reaches the bottom, the Zeutschel is ready for the page to be flipped so the camera can scan back up.

The scanner automatically corrects the white balance and alignment of the document. It also automatically crops, skews and splits the pages. When humming along smoothly, it can record up to 200 pages an hour of searchable text, meaning that nobody has to scan through 9,065 pages to find something specific, they can simply search for a name or keyword.

The Zeutschel scanning machine that did most of the scanning of the DukEngineer issues
After a month’s work, the entire collection was scanned and ready to be massaged together into a digital collection. DPC checked that all the metadata was correct, the editions were complete and the scans were of the best quality they could be.

Now all that’s left is for people to read it. Who knows what other sorts of interesting artifacts are lurking in all those scanned pages?

“One of the most interesting articles I came across was on the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge,” said Sturgeon, speaking of the ill-fated Washington bridge that collapsed in 1940, mere months after its completion, after having twisted and wiggled about like a Jell-O mold. “I had studied the incident as an undergraduate in engineering, and here were Duke students in the magazine’s second issue ever analyzing the failure and why it happened.”

It just goes to show that, even 75 years ago, Pratt students have enjoyed finding practical solutions to  problems. And writing about them—for DukEngineer.