In a way, every day is Ask An Archivist Day. The National Air and Space Museum Archives receives queries from our online request form at every hour of the day from all over the world. But October 1 marks the beginning of American Archives Month, in which archival institutions throughout the United States celebrate their holdings and the work archivists do preserving, cataloging, caring for, and making accessible our history. To kick off this month of events, archivists around the country are taking to Twitter to respond to questions tweeted with the hashtag #AskAnArchivist.
From 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm on Thursday, October 1, Elizabeth Borja and Brian Nicklas (EDIT: Brian Nicklas will no longer be available to answer questions) from the Archives will be on the Museum’s Twitter account and eager to respond to any and all questions you have about archives, archival work, and archivists themselves. Just tweet @airandspace and add the hashtag #AskAnArchivist!
Please be aware that there may be some questions that will require too detailed an answer for us to complete within the limits of the 140 character Twitter format. For example, what drawings and manuals do you have for the P-51 Mustang? For a question like this, we would need to create a custom search order form for you. Also, some questions may require additional research in our collections. For these queries, we may refer you to our online request form. We’ve also answered many basic questions about our collections on our FAQ. These notes aside, no question is too serious or not so serious! Let’s get a head start….
Serious Question: How did you come to work at the National Air and Space Museum? Every staff member has his or her own story. I (Elizabeth Borja) was an undergraduate majoring in History and Biology when I took a student job at an archival repository at my university. I already enjoyed research in primary sources as part of my history program. While processing and arranging historical documents at the archives, I discovered them in a new light. I then completed a dual Master’s program in History and Library Science, with a concentration in archives and records management. As an employee of History Associates Incorporated, I established and maintained the archives for the History Office of the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve been with the National Air and Space Museum for six years now as the reference and outreach coordinator. My colleague, Brian Nicklas, attended the Aeronautical Studies program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He then returned to Washington, DC, and continued to write freelance aerospace articles. He was in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives so frequently to do research, he was asked to volunteer and then to apply for an upcoming opening. Over the past 27 years with the Museum, Brian’s background in both air and space topics has helped him to work between aerospace professionals on the outside and our collections. Recently, Brian authored American Missiles: The Complete Smithsonian Field Guide. Together, Brian and I are the main reference staff for the Archives. We are the voices that answer the phone when you call, the names you will see signed at the bottom of the letters accompanying responses to research queries, and the faces you’ll see in the reading room or at Museum events such as Innovations in Flight Day, Women in Aviation Family Day, or the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Open House.
Not So Serious Question: If your archives had a soundtrack, what songs would be on it? I could probably make an archives-related playlist from Traveling Wilburys songs alone. Handle with Care is exactly how one should work with archival materials. Cool Dry Place is the ideal location one should store archival collections. Wilbury Twist is what an archivist does when trying to get a box off a tall shelf onto a cart while standing on a ladder, and if she’s not coordinated, it’s the End of the Line.
Serious Question: How does the Archives staff interact with the rest of the National Air and Space Museum? Our collections span the history of flight from ancient times to the present day and we do try to collect materials related to artifacts in the overall Museum collection. Archivists work closely with museum curators, restoration specialists, exhibits designers, special events coordinators, and education specialists to provide materials that will help them with whatever they need. For example, the Archives have provided drawings that have helped restoration staff not only create new parts for aircraft in the Restoration Hangar but to get an airplane through the Museum and into an elevator. Much of the material in the Hawaii by Air exhibition came from the Archives collections. Chief of Museum Learning Tim Grove spent many hours in the Archives preparing for the Pioneers of Flight gallery and was inspired by his research to write First Flight Around the World, a children’s book about the Douglas World Cruiser.
Not So Serious Question: What is the funniest thing you’ve found in the Archives? From snowman caricatures of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to World War I era bunny ears, there are definitely moments of levity in our collections. My favorite may be a photograph a researcher found of Orville Wright getting a piggyback ride. According to the documentation that accompanied the photograph, Orville often went out to fly in business clothes and shoes, whereas the mechanics wore hip boots. This test flight of a flying boat had landed in Ohio’s Miami River, so a mechanic carried Orville piggyback-style and put him in the plane so he wouldn’t get his feet wet.