By Maurice Tougas
Tucked away behind the aircraft and display cases at the Alberta Aviation Museum sits a library. But you won’t find today’s bestsellers or the latest John Grisham on its shelves.
The museum’s library is exclusively about aviation, from true stories of aviation daring do and wartime history to aircraft manuals for gearheads.
The unique library is watched over by head librarian John Liddle, a volunteer who has devoted hundreds of hours to the collection.
Liddle, 76, spent 25 years in the RCAF/CF, working as an aircraft avionics technician (“a radar tech, in other words”, he explains). The library position at the museum was a perfect fit.
“My father encouraged me to read when I was very young,” Liddle recalls from the cluttered library. “We always had books at home; it was a literary atmosphere.”
Liddle retired in 2011, and started as a volunteer at the museum in April 2012. After working with the existing volunteers, he eventually took over as the chief book keeper. Under Liddle’s direction, the library took a giant leap forward in making its contents available to the world.
The library’s 5,000-plus items are catalogued in a cloud based database called LibraryThing, a site for volunteer libraries. Liddle gives full credit for the discovery and set-up of this unique database to a graduate library student named Colette Leung, who was volunteering at the time and brought LibraryThingto his attention. Volunteers have since performed the somewhat tedious task of inputting information into the online catalogue.
The database is accessible to anyone who goes onto the museum’s website, Liddle explains. On the top bar of the website, go to Explore then scroll down to the library, and click on the Search the Library Online link. There you will find 28 pages of information about the library’s books and documents. For example, inputting World War II into the search bar reveals 278 items, from illustrated histories of the aircraft of WWII and personal recollections of the men who flew them, to obscure volumes about the markings and camouflage system of Luftwaffe aircraft, including several books of vintage aircraft “nose art”, those paintings that expressed the character of the individual crews.
A small section is devoted to unique Military/Naval volumes primarily of British/Canadian origin that relate to Canada’s history. There are also some volumes from German sources which can broaden a researcher’s field.
Along with the books, there are commercial operating manuals as well as engineering and technical manuals dating back to the 1930s, 40s and 50s. There are old magazines stored in acid-free archival boxes, historical society publications, and general purpose air force magazines.
Museum members may borrow items for up to two weeks. Non-members are welcome to read or research in the library – they’ll give you a desk and access to a computer and a printer/scanner if need be – but you cannot remove the items.
With the exception of a half-dozen, newly-published books the library purchased, everything is donated. All publications are non-fiction.
“If you want to donate a book, please send us a list of the items (email@example.com), and we’ll go through it and get back to you.”
Liddle asks that you don’t “drop and run” your donations.
The library often hears from people disposing of the estates of family members, but not everything fits into the library’s mandate. Books that can’t be catalogued or are duplicates are sold in the museum’s gift shop.
While there are multiple titles with minutely detailed listings of WWII air force crews, Liddle has one hefty tome that he is itching to add to the collection, if he can find one. Called Footprints on the Sands of Time, by Christpher Shores, it’s a detailed listing of all 10,999 British and Commonwealth WWII bomber command crew members who were shot down and captured by the Germans, including what camp they were held in and their ultimate fate.
LIddle is at the library roughly 8:30-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, depending, as so many people of his age, on what his kids or grandkids need help with.
And if you can’t make it to the library in person, Liddle and his volunteers can do some of the research for you. When we spoke, he was in the process of looking for a supply catalogue based on a request from New Zealand. And if you just happen to have a spare copy of Footprints on the Sands of Time, let him know.