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National Air & Space Museum Archives

                                   The archives’ old home at Building 12.

  The archives staff outside Building 12.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum features an archives department with the lofty mission of “acquiring, preserving, organizing, and describing the documentary evidence of aerospace history”.

The archival collection includes artifacts spanning the history of flight in a wide variety of formats, including 20,000 film selections, two million photographic images, 40,000 aircraft technical manuals, and two million aircraft and spacecraft technical drawings.

For practical and storage reasons, the collection is stored in two different locations. Any hobbyist or researcher is welcome to visit either of the archives with an appointment. Users can also submit research requests and have the staff search the collection for suitable research materials. Additionally, researchers can order prints or reproductions of many documents at a cost.

The NASM has an archives reading room where general reference material is kept. The majority of archival reference questions can be answered using the materials stored at the museum. (The staff report that the most frequently requested item is the film of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, which does not actually exist.) However, most of the archival collection is stored offsite. Researchers with specific or obscure questions may prefer to make an appointment to visit the offsite location for reference service better suited to their research needs. Originally, this offsite location was in Building 12 of the Paul E. Garber Restoration and Storage Facility.

                                           The Boeing Aviation Hanger at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

In 2003, two days before the centennial anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, the NASM celebrated the opening of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, a 45 minute drive from the museum in DC. This new companion museum provides a significantly larger space for the storage and display of the museum’s collection of aircraft and spacecraft. As of 2011, the center also features a new archives department and reading room that now houses the vast majority of the archival collection once stored in Building 12.

Orville Wright, 1908. (Carl H. Claudy)
Orville Wright, 1908. (Carl H. Claudy)

The archives organizes its collections by main subject, which is typically an individual or company. The collections tend to feature materials in several formats that either document or were created by the subject. For example, the Carl H. Claudy collection, to which the photo above belongs, includes photos of Claudy as a young boy and prints he created as an adult.

                            Louise Thaden, c. 1929. (unknown)

Though only a very small percentage of the archival collection is available for online searching, the archives provides 99 finding aids on its website to help users find information about its holdings. Little information is offered about an internal system of organization; however, a bit of searching reveals that the Smithsonian has its own method of organization called the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS), which includes a list of major collections found in the NASM archives. Certain collections have very detailed resources, such as the Samuel P. Langley Collection or this guide to the collection of United States Air Force Aircraft History cards. While these resources are excellent for the collections that have them, many of the collections may never be publicly available in this manner. One such example is the intriguing microfilm collection of German and Japanese air technical documents seized by the Allies near the end of World War II. The archives website reports that many reels of microfilm are damaged and cannot be reproduced, some preserved images are blurry due to photographer error, and the indexing often points the reader to incorrect or missing reels.