Patrick Otton, Technical Writer
Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston
Bldg 24 M&R B.N.H.P.
Charlestown Navy Yard
Boston, MA 02129 USA
617-242-0752, phone
617-241-5232, fax

Naval Historical Center, Detachment Boston logo


The purpose of documentation is to establish the historic record for your ship. This is the reference file that answers all the questions asked about your ship concerning the history, the on-going work, and questions concerning planning, operations and use. As Historians or at least people with an interest in history ask "Where do the historical records come from?" Then, set up your ideal world of information exchange and access and compare that to what is presented by NHCDET Boston.

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects is an excellent reference for defining the practice of documentation. The SHPO may be of assistance in the documentation process, but the responsibility rests with the conscience of each individual. Ask yourself:

How much do you like your ship?

How long do you want it to last?

Answer to these questions establish your documentation goals.

According to the Standards, there are three qualifying objectives for documentation:

  1. Documentation provides the "paper" reproduction of the physical object, this gives protection against loss.
  2. Documentation records the changes in the vessel's fabric
  3. Documentation enables future planning.
Documentation is arguably the most important aspect of our relationship with our historic ships. It is the reason for this conference. Through documentation we come to know and understand the maintenance, repair, and future of our historically significant ships.


The camera is never far out of hand. It is important to have someone who is interested in photography as well as savvy and adept in shipboard practices for the greatest utilization of photography.

HABS/HAER define the requirements of photo-documentation to satisfy the Library of Congress collections. HABS/HAER photo-documentation Level 4 is satisfactory for the day-to-day documentation of our ships. Level's Three, Two and One may be utilized in an as-needed requirement.

Each picture frame should contain sufficient definition that anyone, including those not familiar with the ship, can determine the field of view. Date, deck level, position and "thing" should be defined within the frame. Using 12 x 14 inches dry mark erasable boards are an asset when labeling frames.

NHCDET Boston Constitution: About 5 thousand photos:

B/W, color, 35mm, 120mm, and slide formats


Video is an excellent record that combines both sound and picture into one medium. This format is desirable for survey/condition evaluations where verbal descriptions are essential and are a "must" for recording one-time evolution, such as docking/undocking, stepping of masts, or other singular processes.

NHCDET Boston Constitution: About 120 cassettes:

VHS, S-VHS, Beta, 8mm, formats etc.
Manuals are an excellent record of current and existing procedures and ship board practices. NHC DET Boston has either in-use, being updated, or being developed, manuals for:
  • Sail Training Manual
  • Methods
    • Mooring, Procurement
  • Procedures:
    • Safety/Systems: Sound and Security
      • Flooding, de-watering, generators
    • Damage Control
      • Fire, Medical, Flooding, etc..
  • Maintenance Manual
All of these sources should be considered as documentation.
Historic Drawings

Historic drawings need to be collected, identified, defined, contents described, and cataloged to be of value as primary source documentation.

NHCDET Boston Constitution: About 800 NHCDET Boston Drawings of the current configuration of the ship and another 300 National Archive copies of historic drawings dating from the early 1800's. All of these drawings exist in three formats:

Archived originals,
Photocopied working copies,
Aperture card images for reproduction.

These are all recorded in tabular format on the PC using the following table entries:

Naval Architect or Draftsman
Location, Where drawing was made
original, on record
copies, number of working copies

This WORD document is fully searchable for any word entry.

Current Working Drawings

Current working drawings detailing the "as-worked" or "as-repaired" or "as-restored" configurations are important as accurate records of the dimensional and configuration changes within the ship. For the recent Rehabilitation and Restoration of Constitution, NHCDET Boston has logged over 5,000 volunteer hours generating measured drawings of inboard and outboard profiles, sail and rigging plans, and decks as work progressed on Constitution.

Working drawings of the "as-found" conditions may assist in documenting archeological studies in determining previous structure of the ship. Constitution generated archeological drawings to help identify earlier ship structure particularly old fasteners' holes in the lower futtock sections of Constitution.

It is important to document both the "before" and "after" configuration and condition as physical work progresses on the ship.


At NHCDET Boston, there is an established format for documenting and establishing a written record for each job that is performed and for all repair activity involving the ship. This entails entries for:
  • description and definition of work task item
  • history
  • materials acquisition/procurement
  • manufacturing reports
  • methods, procedures, problems
  • tooling usage
  • finishes
  • materials disposition
  • photo/video reference archive
An example of one of the 179 tasks performed as the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Constitution is attached.


Substance for our ships is derived from historic records. These are the primary sources such as Logbooks, Letter books, Journals, Notebooks, Receipts, Contracts, and known Period Reference Sources such as reference texts and manuals.

Repeated searching requires ease of access and the capability to search for individual key words. Transcription of original manuscripts on to the PC makes this possible. Transcription as an electronic copy preserves the original document and makes the copy infinitely transportable.

NHCDET Boston has transcribed about 1000 pages of handwritten manuscripts; Letterbooks, Notebooks, and Deck logs onto the PC. Additional transcription of period letters, repair records, sourced from records from the yard, town, or state where the repair was completed, and logbooks are planned. There are estimated to be about 20,000 pages that are readily available, with an unknown quantity that remain to be found.


Microfilm provides a manageable format for preserving historic records. NHCDET Boston has filmed Constitution's designers, (Joshua Humphreys and Joshia Fox) note and letter books. These historic records yield much information concerning sizes, dimensions, and repairs to Constitution.

Notebooks from designers, constructors, crew, etc. are being filmed to ensure longevity and access.


Collection of external news articles also documents the activity concerning our ships. Newspaper, journal, and letters are all collectable as official records. Video broadcast formats are also collectable. These sources will eventually become part of the historic record of the ship.

Within the organization, current Work orders, Change Orders, Personnel lists, etc., all comprise the historical record. These sources need to be documented and archived.

As a matter of habit, everything is photocopied as the original is archived and working copies are distributed.


Historic Models
Historic period models help define the ship's configuration, either through the research of a contemporary modeller or in the configuration of a known period model itself. There are about 15 models of Constitution depicting Constitution in various configurations and time periods.
Contemporary Working Models
Models have been used two times to determine the hull configuration (a 1:16 scale model of the ship's structure) and sailing behavior (a 1:25 rigged tow tank test sailing model) of Constitution. These models are important documents of the existing structure of the ship and our understanding of the ship's behavior.


Example of Documentation Package: See Attachment A


Documentation is the "BIG" picture of your ship. Documentation provides the source information for answering the question: What, How, and Why. It is both the current active creation of the historic record of the ship for future use as well as the historic research to support the on-going work.

In the short term, documentation enables the administrative functions to continue -- sourcing of materials, planning, estimating and scheduling of labor, tooling, facilities for the on-going maintenance.

For the long term, documentation allows researchers to understand what happened.

There are those who as they document, creating the historical record, live in the present for the future, and there are those who are the historians that live in the past for the present -- both are needed. Remember, it is documentation that spans all time and enables our ships to live.

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Version 1.04, 11 Aug 1997