May 15, 2023

AASL May Column

AASL Column

The World Architecture Index: The Story of an Essential Resource for Architectural Precedent Research

Column by Barret Havens, Architecture Subject Specialist and Interim University Librarian, Woodbury University
Barbara Opar, column editor

It is 1991. Try to imagine what architecture libraries were like. Of course, some architecture librarians don’t have to imagine, because they were there.

In 1991, there was no Artstor. There was no Google. The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals was the essential resource that it is now, but it was only available in print as a monographic series. In 1991, even the CD-ROM version of the Avery Index was 4 years away from publication.
But even though the Avery Index was already available in print, it indexed only periodicals, as is still the case today. No doubt, architecture journals and magazines are critical sources of architectural images for students and faculty doing precedent research. But so are books. And even though online public access catalogs (OPACS) were in use in most academic libraries by 1991, catalog records for books at that time were far less descriptive than they are now and, consequently, didn’t include comprehensive lists of all the buildings covered in an individual volume. That being the case, an OPAC search for individual built works would have been far less likely to yield useful results than it would be today. Recognizing the need for an index to guide researchers, faculty, and students to monographic sources of images of architectural precedents, Edward Teague began the monumental project that would result in the publication of the World Architecture Index: A Guide to Illustrations (WAI) by Greenwood Press in 1991. It took him 8 years to complete.
Edward’s objective was “…to create a resource that enabled access, through several indexes, to a wide range of illustrations about key monuments of architecture. An important achievement was making a complex amount of information easy to use. How to find 7,200 works and 10,000+ illustrations of them, and the basic who, what, when, and where…” To accomplish this goal, Edward would index illustrations contained within 111 monographs that he determined were the most essential sources of images representing key architectural monuments.
The illustrations comprised city plans, sections, site plans, floor plans and elevations, as well as interior and exterior drawings. The chronological range of the WAI encompassed built projects from ancient to modern times. The list of 111 sources that Teague selected represented a gamut of diverse architectural traditions–in addition to sources focusing on colonial traditions, which were the primary focus of study within most architecture programs at the time, he indexed sources representing ancient indigenous works, and others that contained illustrations of more recent works that fell outside the scope of colonial traditions. A few titles that exemplify the diverse palette of sources he drew from for the WAI are:
  • Pre-Columbian Architecture of Mesoamerica
  • New Directions in African Architecture
  • The Art & Architecture of India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain
By highlighting non-colonial traditions, Teague’s tome encouraged the study of those traditions by making drawings representing diverse building practices accessible like never before. Consequently, the WAI became a catalog of international projects for students and researchers to use not only to target images of precedents they already had in mind—it became an essential one-stop-shop for browsing for projects from a variety of traditions and geographic regions. Regarding the impact of the WAI with regard to its treatment of historically marginalized architectural traditions, Teague has reflected: “It would certainly be gratifying if the use of WAI did encourage more diverse approaches to architectural study.”
The WAI is conveniently organized into sub-indexes based on 4 categories: site (location), architect or firm name, building typology, and the name of a built work. Prior to the advent of the internet, these access points were critical because, hitherto, there was no singular source that included the wealth of basic information about buildings that was woven into the cross-indexed structure of the WAI. Hence, it also served as a guide to finding out which architect or firm created which work, where it was located, what type of work it was, etc. In a pre-internet world, a single, handy source of basic information such as this was invaluable.

But even now, in the age of Google, Teague’s guide is far from obsolete. It is still a critical tool in the quiver of any architecture librarian. One reason it is still relevant is that design disciplines rely on print sources for their consistently outstanding image quality, and the WAI directs the user to illustrations in hardcopy. Although, increasingly, image databases such as Artstor do contain high quality images as well, many architecture librarians find that, especially when searching Artstor, their university library catalogs, or the Avery Index for images representing projects built before the 1950s, they are at a challenging impasse when their searches are unsuccessful, which is the case often enough. That impasse is created by gaps in coverage that still exist today, for the following reasons:

  • Periodical literature tends to focus primarily on recent developments and recent projects, so the Avery Index is not as useful for targeting images of older projects as books are in many cases.
  • Fairly often, digital image databases such as Artstor also fail to deliver in terms of providing renderings of older projects.
In addition, as mentioned earlier in this article, it was, and is still the case that bibliographic records for older books that are more likely to cover older built works lack the level of detail that would enable one to locate a monograph covering a particular project through an OPAC or Discovery System search. Edward Teague’s WAI was recognized by ALA’s Choice Magazine as one of 1991’s “Outstanding Reference Books.”
For the reasons enumerated above, the WAI is still very useful, as it serves to fill a critical gap in coverage of older, or even ancient key historical structures. However, the WAI will only remain useful if libraries preserve access to the 111 books it indexes. Consequently, architecture librarians should protect these books from being weeded, and even though many libraries have followed the trend of moving items from the reference shelves to circulating collections, the sources indexed in World Architecture Index should remain in non-circulating collections to conserve them (replacement copies are becoming increasingly rare), and to ensure that Edward Teague’s World Architecture Index will continue to be a useful tool for precedent research.
Source of quotes from Edward Teague:
Teague, Edward. “Re: World Architecture Index — Comments.” Received by Barret Havens, 15 Jan.-15 March, 2023. Email Interview.