“Here it is.”
Reference librarian Phil Edwards thumbs through a few ornate bindings before one book catches his eye. He pulls it down from the caged, wooden shelving and carefully opens its cover, revealing the signature of one of America’s most well-known aviators: Amelia Earhart.
“20 Hrs. 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship” was written by Earhart in 1928. The copy is one of only 150 signed by the famed pilot, earning its place among the rare items located at the National Air and Space Museum’s Ramsey Room, one of Edwards' favorite spots and his occasional office.
Many of the Museum’s most unique paper items are stored here. The Ramsey Room, located on the third floor of the Museum in Washington, DC, boasts a collection of monographs, manuals, transcriptions, scrapbooks, and early literature detailing the history and innovation of flight from ballooning to space exploration in the 20th century. A large portion of the materials were donated by William A. Burden and the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences.
Edwards, who started working at the library 45 years ago, became an employee before the Museum on the National Mall was even built. At just 18 years old, Edwards’ extensive knowledge of aeronautical history earned him a spot on the Museum’s staff, and he’s been researching and preserving content for the library ever since.
“Most of these pieces haven’t been digitized,” Edwards said. “So unless you have a copy, the only place to get up close and personal with these pieces is in the National Air and Space Museum’s very own Ramsey Room.”
Lined up and organized by subject matter, the most delicate items are hidden away in order to limit their exposure to light. In other words, to prevent damage such as yellowing. But Edwards emphasized they are meant to be handled, albeit carefully.
“We want to have these things because we were thinking that, as a Museum, these things have potential but we can’t keep paper on display,” Edwards explained, pulling out other items of interest, including a book signed by the first known human on an aircraft, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier.
Edwards then moves on to review another book, this time a memoir of Thaddeus Lowe, Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, that had never been published. Flipping through pages typed up by Lowe himself, Edwards murmurs his appreciation for both the paper and for the way things used to be made.
A fan of what he calls “the older stuff,” Edwards shared some of the library’s most prized possessions and lesser-known gems just in time for Museum Week’s Book Day (#BooksMW):
The Aeroplane: Past, Present and Future by Claude Grahame-White
Edwards describes Grahame-White as “one of the more colorful figures of the era.” Grahame-White once made a surprise landing in Washington, DC, near the White House, but escaped handcuffs. He was a well-known pre-WWI English aviator for making first flight at night. The book’s binding, exterior, and the recollections within are characteristics that make it special, believes Edwards.
‘Sea Pie’: Full of Hot Stuff
This book’s bright, vivid illustrations make it unique among its grayscale counterparts. Written to aid authorized naval prisoners of war charities and yield a few laughs, the book is filled with British pluck, including drawings of naval officers doing handstands as a representation of the nautical term “all hands on deck.”
Apollo II Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription
Donated by James Taylor, the Apollo II technical air-to-ground voice transcription doesn’t just include one of the most popular sentences to date — “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — but the signatures of the three astronauts who made the first journey to the Moon: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and former Museum director Michael Collins.
“This is, quite frankly, the sort of thing that could have so easily been lost to time,” said Edwards. “It’s wonderful to have something as permanent as this because otherwise you’d just have something like a tape recording.”
Not As Briefed By Edward Jablonski
This book is a compilation of watercolor paintings created by Col. Charles Ross Greening. The art-and-text volume had been long out of print when the Museum got it as a part of their collection. Greening was one of the “Doolittle Raiders” during World War II and was he was a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany. His artwork represents the scenes he witnessed while there, functioning as an artistic memoir of his experience.
During his time as a prisoner, however, Greening kept the other airmen busy by teaching them art. They made paintbrushes out of their own hair, baked twigs to make charcoal, and used coffee dye as paint.
Histoire de l'Aéronautique By Henri Bouche and Charles Dollfus
This piece showcases beautiful illustrations, but also photographs, portraiture, and other works depicting balloons, airships, airplanes, and pilots with accompanying text. The book, which was published in 1942, goes deep into the history of flight, and it’s expansive inclusion of varying aircraft makes it a gem among the rest.
The Museum’s library is particularly good at storing representations of ballooning in its collections. This book, compiled by Henri Bouche and Charles Dollfus, is a good overview of pictorial works in history. One of Edwards’ favorite images is that of a balloon floating above Versailles (“Le globe aerostatique”).
There are also multiple copies of old magazines focused on “flying machines” in the collection that are out of print, and Edwards pulled out three of his favorite covers.
The first was The Ace, described as the aviation magazine of the West, which featured a photograph of a barnstormer flying through the rooftop of a building. The image, Edwards explained, is a classic example of barnstormers, or stunt pilots that grew in popularity during the 1920s.
Another cover is from a November issue of Fly, the national aeronautic monthly, printed in 1909. It features the silhouette of a flyer circumventing the Statue of Liberty. Within its pages is an article about students building their own flying machines.
Edwards also picked out an issue of Skylady, which was published a little later in 1945, featuring two young girls looking up at a biplane in the sky. Skylady was a magazine with a target audience of females interested in aviation.
Although it may seem as though the Ramsey Room is full of technical drawings and essays, there are bits of fiction weaved into the collection as well, including comic books. Edwards pointed to two rows of books.
In addition to more familiar heros, such as Donald Duck and Captain Midnight (1938-1949), other series include Smilin’ Jack (1933-1973), which was the longest running aviation comic strip for 40 years, Tailspin Tommy (1928-1942), which was about a youthful pilot inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and the space opera characters Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
For Edwards, looking at pieces such as these makes the history of flight a little more fun.