Tour: National Air and Space Museum Library

On March 28th a group of Library and Information students from the Catholic University of America, including myself, went on a tour of the National Air and Space Museum Library (NASML). The tour was organized by CUA’s Special Library Association student group. The U.S. Army Rock band happened to be playing the day of our visit, so their songs permeated our experience with a soothing backdrop of familiar tunes.

The National Air and Space Museum Library is part of a system of twenty libraries run by the Smithsonian Institute. The Smithsonian Libraries contain over “1.8 million volumes, including 50,000 rare books and manuscripts and almost 500,000 trade catalogs.” (About the Libraries) Their holdings are searchable at “Anyone is welcome to visit the Smithsonian Libraries for research purposes.” (About the Libraries) If there is an interest in viewing the collection of the NASML, a good place to begin is with their Subject Guide List where they break down their collection into major holdings topics.

The NASML has an expansive view of the national mall. The reading room of the library is encompassed by glass panes, bathing the room in natural light. The frosty winter that ensnared D.C. caused condensation to drip from the glass into the reading room more so than usual this season. To remedy this, plastic sheets were draped over the computers, tables, and some of the books.   The reading room had the sound of a jet engine roaring in the background caused by  a large machine that helps control the temperature and the humidity in the room since the skylights can create large variations in weather inside if there is nothing there to stabilize the temperature. Chris Cottrill joked about having to wear sweaters on the hottest days of summer.

Chris Cottrill is the head Librarian at the National Air and Space Museum Library, and has a background in American History. It was evident from the outset that he has a passion for where he works. Chris shared that there are  three divisions of the NASML: Aeronautics, Space History, & Planetary Studies. The top priorities for acquisition at the library are primary type material, current history, and space history. He also shared that the NASML is formalized in the U.S. Code where it states the functions of the NASM shall “serve as a repository for scientific equipment and data pertaining to the development of aviation and spaceflight; and provide educational material for the historical study of aviation and spaceflight.”(20 U.S. Code § 77a)

Most of our tour took place in the Ramsey Room. The Ramsey room was “Named in honor of Admiral DeWitt Clinton Ramsey, an early naval aviator, this room contains rare library materials concerning the history of aviation and spaceflight.” (Smithsonian Opportunities) The original plan for the room was naval aviation history, but it now includes space exploration as well.

Chris was very generous in preparing many items within the collection for viewing on our tour.  A brief list of the collection that was spread out before us, like a librarian’s feast,  include: a limited Edition of a signed Amelia Earhart Biography;  a collection of children’s literature such as Buck Rogers in the twenty-fifth century A.D. by Lt. Dick Calkins and Phil Nowlan; the specs for “Queen Bee”- the first remote controlled aircraft; a selection of materials produced by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey; and a variety of items from the  Bella C. Landauer Collection of Aeronautical Sheet Music. He also informed us that the NASML just received a collection of oral histories of surviving officers and crew who worked on dirigibles which they are working to make available soon. They are working on digitizing and scanning the material. An example of one of their current scanning projects is a 19th century ballooning collection by clergyman that is organized into three volumes.

Like many major public institutions, the NASML is dependent on endowments and gifts. One of their programs allow you to Adopt a Book or to give a book in someone’s name to the library.  One of the Smithsonian Libraries current undertakings is a branding and marketing program made possible by Brandlogic valued at $150,000 (2013 Annual Report). James Cerruti, a member of the advisory board for the project and a Senior Partner at Brandlogic, had this to say about the libraries:

“The Libraries is perhaps the only entity within the Institution that reaches across most of its activities and supports its functioning at a very broad level. We want to make sure the Libraries’ story in supporting the scientific and curatorial work of the Smithsonian’s staff gets told, making people both within and outside the Institution aware of the high value that librarians bring to the scientific, art, and cultural research communities.” (2013 Annual Report)


This was a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the nation’s premier institutions and how the library operates within their sphere of influence and serves the nation, and the world, through the macrocosm of the Smithsonian Institute.  From what I have learned, the library is the perfect place to center James Smithson’s investment for “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Works Cited

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. “2013 Annual Report: Advancing Collaboration Knowledge + Understanding.” Print.

—. About the Libraries. Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Smithsonian Institution: Office of Fellowships and Internships. “Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study 2011-2012.”Web. <>.

Smithsonian Institution. “Our History.”Web. <>.




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