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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006 Supplement

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Capturing a Graying Literature: The U.S. Forest Service Research Legacy

Bonnie E. Avery
Natural Resources Librarian
Oregon State University Libraries
Corvallis, Oregon


Among the "natural resource" collections in the ScholarsArchive@OSU is the "U.S. Forest Service Research Legacy." Research findings from the U.S. Forest Service make up a significant portion of the core of any U.S. forest research library collection. Oregon State University Libraries began considering how it might contribute to preserving this research legacy in late 2004. An informal assessment of digitization plans within the U.S. Forest Service was undertaken in 2005. In February 2006, this project was added to the Registry of U.S. Government Publication Digitization Projects. This article relates the history and current scope of this collection, told from a subject librarian's perspective.


Oregon State University (OSU) Libraries began its in-house digital library development in early 2001. At that time, one of our goals was to improve access to natural resources information. Many libraries elect to begin such an initiative by digitizing content first. In contrast, we began by conducting a needs assessment and developing relationships with the users of this information (Salwasser and Murray-Rust 2002). This assessment led us to develop the Oregon ExplorerTM, a web interface for our natural resources digital library, which would be designed to meet our users expressed need for access to and use of geo-referenced, multi-format information (Salwasser and Avery 2006). By 2004, the technical aspects of this project were well underway, and the task of selecting and digitizing content could not be postponed. Our plan called for digitized collections to reside in the ScholarsArchive@OSU, an instance of DSpace, which serves as our institutional repository (IR). The "Natural Resources Digital Library" was one of our first DSpace communities. It is atypical of many IR communities in that it is not managed by a specific campus department, but is a place for collections of interest to a broad user group on and off campus.

Selecting a digitization project for this broad community of interest left a good deal of room for interpretation and need for prioritization. OSU Libraries wanted to ramp up its in-house digitization capacity, but to be in alignment with our strategic plan, we were interested in content that could be well defined and was available locally. Restricting content to documents in the public domain would circumvent the need to include securing copyright permission and speed up the process.

Finding a Focus and an Opportunity for Collaboration

Among the natural resources, OSU is known internationally for its contributions to forestry research. So it made sense to look for a collection related to forestry and forest science. This decision served to narrow the field of public domain literature to several federal and state agencies. Primary among these agencies was the USDA Forest Service (USFS). For those unfamiliar with the USFS publication output, suffice it to say it is an alphabet soup of codes for regions and report types, but a soup that is the staple of any forest research collection. The USFS is the most prolific single provider of forestry related information in the world.

Perhaps because the USFS report series are a standard in the U.S. Federal Library Depository System, in October 2004 the government documents librarians at the University of Montana and University of Idaho contacted OSU Libraries with an interest in seeking funding for a regional digitization project. Specifically, they wanted to make available the USFS report literature for the western states and at the same time enhance the capacity of each library to contribute to digitization projects in the future as well.

For three months we communicated regularly by phone and e-mail. We agreed on standards and institutional contributions and needs. We checked in with digitization projects we were aware of in our region to see that we were not duplicating work already underway. We solicited and received letters of support from several individuals and organizations including the Forest History Society, the State Forester for Oregon, deans of our regional forestry programs, and Oregon's Institute for Natural Resources. Then, overnight, our initial grant funding option evaporated. We had to rethink our plan. The University of Montana had a stake in working with their USFS counterparts in the Rocky Mountain region but would need to look for outside funding first. At OSU, we were ready to pursue a project sooner than later.

Scouting out the Territory

In January 2005, we decided to investigate what portion of the USFS report literature could be digitized with in-house funding. To better understand our selection requires a brief look at the history of research and information dissemination within the USFS. The seeds of USFS research were planted over one hundred years ago. Their establishment within the formal structure of the Service took a bit longer (Olberding 2000; Steen 1976; Zerbe and Green 1999; Herring and Greene 2001). The first forest experimental station opened in 1908, outside of Flagstaff, Arizona at Fort Valley. Many others were established in quick succession, including one in Washington State at Wind River in 1913. The earliest USFS research facility, established in 1910 and located in Madison Wisconsin, was the Forest Products Laboratory.

As a result of the merging of the research and experiment station facilities in more recent years, today the USFS Research and Development Program is a network of six Research Regional Stations, the Forest Products Laboratory, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D. C. Office. Publication series within this network date back to the early part of the last century. Today, each of these facilities may publish its own editions of four series: General Technical Reports, Research Papers, Research Notes and Resource Bulletins.

By 1998, with the rise of the web as a medium for dissemination of information, the research publications of the USFS began being "born-digital" and made available electronically. As an aid to researchers and others trying to locate this information, the USFS introduced the TreeSearch database in early 2004. To the veteran user of TreeSearch, it was obvious that items were being added to this collection regularly. At its launch it provided access to some 7,000 items and a recent check found this figure approaching 13,000. When we investigated TreeSearch in late 2004, there was no visible "master plan" for a retrospective digitization project.

Uncovering Digitization Project Plans

With the full array of pre-1998 USFS literature to choose from, we looked for the common interests between our users and this research legacy. Because OSU has a history of collaborative research in the region, other things being equal, we would opt for digitizing Pacific Northwest Research Station materials. We proceeded along that planning path through January of 2005. However, as we were about to move forward, we heard from the PNW Publications Office, that they had secured internal funding to complete the digitizing of their four current series back to the early 1960's. They indicated this project would be completed by the end of that fiscal year, but that timing could be affected by funding shortfalls. This news prompted us to contact the Pacific Southwest Station again to inquire about their plans. They indicated that retrospective digitization was underway on a longer timeframe (an estimated three years).

For a subject librarian, discovering these digitization plans were underway was good news. Coming this close to digitizing unnecessarily, however, was a sobering experience. We had learned two important lessons about communication within a large, decentralized agency like the U.S. Forest Service. First, locate the right information source. Second, listen for the answer to your question, and if you don't get an answer, ask again.

Finding a New Area of Common Interest

This experience prompted us to reconsider what our institutional stake was in this material. In conversations with the OSU Wood Science and Engineering Department, we were pleased to find a high level of interest in the publications of the USFS Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). After an exchange of e-mails with the USFS FPL, it became clear that our biggest contribution would be to digitize their Technical Notes and the "mimeo" Reports, published from 1919 through 1962. The OSU Wood Science and Engineering faculty offered their in-house collection of these early series to augment our own. We then began the process of bringing this material together in preparation for scanning and the provision of metadata.

One of the reasons for the success of this effort to date is the enthusiasm and responsiveness of Julie Blankenburg, Head of the Madison Forest Products Laboratory Library who acts as our liaison to the USFS FPL and to TreeSearch. The USFS FPL Library has served as a source of items we were unable to find locally. Ms. Blankenburg has provided us with knowledge of the publication record for specific items in this collection as well (e.g. owing to the classified nature of some research in World War II, we discovered that several items were at one time classified documents).

Where We Stand

We anticipate completing our initial project by the end of 2006. Our intent is to contribute to the scope of U. S. Forest Service research made available via the web in such a way that each item is easily located through commonly available search engines. Digitized documents are also contributed to the TreeSearch Database via the USFS FPL Library. Thanks to the willingness of CABI to grant us a license to use their online CAB Thesaurus for this project, we can augment subject access to this collection.

Documents from this and other research stations will be added to this collection in the future, but only if they are unavailable in electronic format elsewhere. For that reason, we felt it was very important to register this project with the newly established Registry of U.S. Government Publication Digitization Projects in January 2006. It is our hope that we can influence the USFS research stations to follow the lead of the Forest Products Laboratory to register their projects as well, so that it is easier to ascertain what remains to be digitized in the future.

In the course of this project, we conducted an informal needs assessment to get at the state of digitization within the USFS. We discovered that our assumption that only pre-1998 documents needed to be digitized was generally true, but not a hard and fast rule. Digitization priorities within the USFS are established by demand for access first, and keeping up with current research output is a non-trivial task for those involved with the TreeSearch resource. Retrospective digitization projects are handled at the research facility level and are limited by the availability of funding. In some stations there is a reserve of scanned images not yet added to TreeSearch for lack of metadata. In other cases, the quality of the scanned images made several years ago is inadequate and rescanning is needed. While demand exceeds production capacity for these research facilities, there is concern that the task be accomplished. Our inquiries regarding their work to date was greeted with interest and candor. In addition to dissemination and access, preservation of the research record is a concern as well. Given the long history of research within these stations each has at least some unique paper records. These documents are not always housed in stable conditions and digitization is seen as a way of assuring their content will not be lost.

Where Are We Going?

USFS researchers have contributed over a century of work and research findings in an attempt to better understand how to preserve and manage the national forests. The earliest long term forest genetics studies in North America were begun by these researchers on natural stands of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine. Basic studies of wood properties still in use today are the result of early research conducted by the USFS. But, the context for this early research, if not the research itself, is being lost.

Researchers retire and die and take with them a rich source of firsthand information about their life and work. As a result of funding and space constraints, special or branch forestry collections and librarians are becoming a thing of the past as well. These losses result in a diminishment of collective knowledge about both the content and context of published research findings.

"The U.S. Forest Service Research Legacy" is an expansive name for our project. It is intended to convey this broader scope and need for preservation. At some future time, we hope that the availability of this and other material from the USFS will encourage others to create thematic portals that tell the stories that accompany this research legacy. Our concern is that if we wait too long to preserve the research record, no one will remain who knows that there are stories to tell.


Herring, M. and Greene, S. 2001. Forest of time: research at the Wind River Experimental Forest 1908-1919. Forest History Today Spring/Fall 2001: 36-43. [Online] Available: {} [May 19, 2006].

Olberding, S.D. 2000. Fort Valley: the beginnings of forest research. Forest History Today Spring 2000: 9-15. [Online]. Available: {} [May 19, 2006].

Registry of U.S. Government Publication Digitization Projects. [Online]. Available: {} [May 19, 2006].

Salwasser, J. and Avery, B.E. 2006. Oregon ExplorerTM : A Natural Resources Digital Library. Oregon Library Association Quarterly 12(1): 11-14.

Salwasser, J. and Murray-Rust, C. 2002. Assessing the Need for a Natural Resources Digital Library. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 2002. [Online]. Available: [May 19, 2006].

Steen, H. 1976. The U.S. Forest Service: A History. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Zerbe, J. I. & Green, P.A.D. 1999. Extending the forest resource: 90 years of progress at the Forest Products Laboratory. Forest History Today Fall 1999: 9-14. [Online]. Available: {}[February 8, 2006]

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