The AIAA History Technical Committee is pleased to make accessible
online the exceptional aviation bibliographical resource the U.S. WPA
Bibliography of Aeronautics. Led by Lester D. Gardner, the indefatigable
Institute of Aeronautical Sciences secretary, the IAS employed more than
100 people over a five-year period who compiled two million records that
enabled the IAS to create one of the most comprehensive bibliographic record
of aviation ever produced.
This online collection was produced in collaboration with Dr. Rachel P. Maines of Cornell University. Dr. Maines a noted historian of technology discovered the bibliography while conducting research on the history of aviation safety. A bibliophile—or perhaps “bibliography-ophile” is more accurate—she was able to track down almost the complete collection and had them scanned. The History TC is grateful to Dr. Maines for this exceptional public service.
Details about the collection
The complete bibliography is comprised of 28 volumes and 50 parts. Each part focuses on a different subject. As of August 2011, this collection is missing just 4 volumes. (Part 28 “Fuels”; Part 29 “Lubricants”; Part 49 “Rocket Propulsion” and Part 50 “Stratospheric Flight.”) We anticipate completing this project in late 2012 when the final parts are scanned.
The pdf files are fully searchable, something that aviation historians have coveted for years. For a quick overview, you may wish to begin with the final volume “Alphabetical List of Aeronautical Bibliographies with Subject Contents.”
A short history of the WPA Bibliography of Aeronautics
This excerpt is from pages 79-82 of Tom D. Crouch’s Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers: A History of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics...and What Came Before, published in 2006. Readers interested in seeing the citations should consult the original book available from the AIAA. This excerpt is reprinted here with permission by the author and AIAA and may be used if properly cited.
"The Library and the Aeronautical Index"
Lester Gardner believed that meeting the information needs of the members, many of whom had no access to a good technical library, was one of the most important services the IAS [Institute of Aeronautical Sciences] could provide. He took the first step in that direction at the time of the move into the Skyport, when he donated his personal library of several hundred volumes on aviation, many of them rare and historically significant, along with his collection of aeronautical pamphlets and photographs.
The secretary explained to members in the fall of 1935 that although the Institute did “not wish to house a large collection of books,” it was important to build “a representative library.” The Council would not appropriate money for books until 1938, so Gardner invited interested parties to follow his example and send lists of any books that they were willing to donate to the Institute. “Scientific and engineering books are particularly desired,” he noted, promising that “each book will be marked with the name of the donor and the gift acknowledged in the Journal.”
Gift books began to arrive one or two volumes at a time. As promised, Gardner dutifully acknowledged each donation in the Journal of Aeronautical Sciences. He also provided foreign aeronautical organizations with subscriptions to the Journal, and received their publications in return. By September 1935, issues of 44 aeronautical journals from the United States, Argentina, Austria, Australia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union were added to the IAS library collection each month.
As the library grew, Gardner realized that having access to books and journals was the least of the problems facing an engineer in search of information. The real difficulty was how to find what you were looking for in a rapidly expanding literature. It was a problem as old as flight itself.
The traditional answer was to prepare a bibliography. French balloonist Gaston Tisssandier had published his classic, Bibliographie aéronautique: catalogue de liveres d’histoire, de science, de voyage et de fantasie, traitant de la navigation aérienne ou des aéostats, in 1887. During the early 20th century, as library shelves began to groan under the weight of books, articles, journals, and papers covering aspects of aviation, professional librarians stepped into the breach.
The New York Public Library issued “A List of Works...Relating to Aeronautics” in a 1908 edition of its Bulletin. Paul Brockett of the Smithsonian Institution launched a much more substantial effort. Brockett had begun work as a Smithsonian messenger in 1886 and, with additional training and experience, rose to the position of assistant librarian of the Institution. During the course of his own flying machine experiments, Samuel Pierpont Langley, who had led the Smithsonian from 1887 until his death in 1906, had amassed one of the world’s most complete aeronautical libraries. Charles Doolittle Wolcott, his friend and successor, asked Brockett to prepare a bibliography based on existing works like Tissandier’s and the material in the Langley library.
Published in 1910 as Volume 55 of the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, the Bibliography of Aeronautics contained 13,487 individual entries covering flight-related items appearing prior to 1909. A second volume covered the years 1909 to 1916, and a third, published in 1923, covered works that had appeared since 1917. The Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACC) carried on the work with the Library Bulletin published from 1922 to 1935.
As past president and an active supporter of the ACC, Lester Gardner was fully aware of the indexing project sponsored by that organization and regarded it as a critically important function that the IAS could perform more effectively than the ACC. The secretary announced a new initiative to the members at the Third Annual Meeting on January 30, 1935. “There have been many indexes of books and magazines,” he began, “and there have been digests of technical papers and bibliographies.” None of those aids was as complete as they might be, however, and none included such key graphic items as photographs, drawings, and maps. With that in mind, Gardner approached William Zelcer, New York City’s Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Plants and Structures for Aviation, suggesting that he sponsor such an index as a project that could be undertaken by unemployed engineers and aeronautical professionals. Zelcer liked the idea, and the Emergency Relief Bureau of New York agreed to fund the effort.
Gardner would act as technical director of the project. Dr. Merle S. Ward, of the Works Division of the Emergency Relief Bureau, would supervise the “aeronautical specialists, filing clerks and typists” who would record bibliographic information on thousands of 3 x 5 index cards. “Practically every airplane or aircraft engine will be found indexed by country, manufacturer and type,” he explained. “Such subjects as accidents, aerology, aerobatics, airports, airships, armaments, aviation, balloons, gliders, maps, as well as hundreds of others, will all have their special files.” There would be files with files. “Separate headings under the subdivision airplane parts, for example, include fuselage, landing gear, propellers, cockpit, wings, ailerons, slots, wheels, floats, pontoons, dope, chairs, interior furnishings, and cowling.”
The founding members of the IAS chipped in to support the project. Sherman Fairchild donated filing cabinets, each of which could hold 80,000 index cards. Luis de Florez, a wealthy Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alumnus, donated $250, enabling the IAS library to acquire the annual volumes of the Engineering Index, 1926-1935. This series indexed publications in all fields of engineering. Each volume ran to 1,200 pages and included 40,000 entries drawn from 2,000 publications. Harry F. Guggenheim provided the library with a complete set of Les Fisches Aeronautiques, a bimonthly classified digest and index of aeronautical materials published by the French Centre de Documentation Aéronautique Internationale. The French project was supported by a grant from the Daniel Guggenheim Foundation for the Promotion of Aeronautics.
The press was enthusiastic. Gardner convinced his friend Lowell Thomas to feature the Aeronautical Index project on his radio program. Reginald Cleveland, the New York Times aviation specialist, was quick to congratulate the Institute. “Until this work was begun,” he noted, “it was practically impossible to locate aeronautical information without a long search of many books, magazines, and newspapers. When this index is completed, it will be possible to find a picture of almost anything that has happened in aviation, or of any aeronautical product.”
The number of completed cards had reached 15,000 by May 1935. Gardner predicted that the number would double over the next month, “...so that the index will takes its place as one of the largest and most complete indexes of aeronautical literature in the world.” His words were prophetic. The Aeronautical Index soon took over the original office space in Rockefeller Center, necessitating the first move to the new quarters on the 51st floor.
By July 1935, the index employed 25 people who had completed 90,000 cards. The goal was to reach 200,000 by the end of the year. That month the Relief Bureau released a complex “Organization and Work Chart” for what was officially known as Project 89-Pb-1592-X. The tasks outlined included typing, clipping, filing, and indexing. In addition to the collection of bibliographic information on books, articles, pictures, and biographies, the Index project was also producing a chronology of aeronautics, “which will be comprehensive and cover all the principal activities in aeronautics from legendary times.” IAS members were asked to furnish “chronologies of their specialties,” which would go into the compilation of a master document.
The Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) took over direction of the Index and most similar locally supported relief projects in the fall of 1935. The New Dealers allocated $34,650 “...to be expended in...expanding the work already underway.” There were now 120,000 cards on file, with 5,000 more being generated each week. Gardner reported that the Index had reached a total of more than 400,000 cards by January 1937. In the end, the project produced some two million cards, employed more than 100 people and cost $150,000.
Although the work of keeping the Index updated would continue on a smaller scale, the basic project was approaching completion after three years effort. The first specialized bibliographies covering Propellers, Stratospheric Flight, Rocket Propulsion, Women in Aviation, and Airports were ready for distribution in the fall of 1937.
The complete Aeronautical Index was issued in 1938. It consisted of 28 volumes made up of 50 separate bibliographies covering the entire range of aviation topics. More than 300 complete sets of the mimeographed bibliography, some 16,000 volumes, were distributed to universities, research facilities, and libraries across the nation. In addition, the Institute, in cooperation with various state and local WPA offices, also produced a series of important free-standing bibliographies of aeronautical articles in key 19th and early 20th century publications including the Scientific American and Harper’s Weekly.
The secretary had worked hard to interest the IAS members in his pet project. In the end, he seems to have recognized that it was a losing battle. “I fear few of our members appreciate the magnitude of this work or its great importance,” he complained as the project was winding down in February 1939. That did nothing to reduce Gardner’s determination to establish the Institute’s reputation as the source of aeronautical information, however.
Gardner Bibliography Index