Around the Library with Smithy
What is so special about the Special Collections?
13 September 2017
The idea of working with one employer for a long time seems uncommon these days, so when I say I have worked at the Library for 16 years, people tend to be surprised. But before things slip into a “boring old public servant” discussion I always hasten to add that within this time I have done many jobs, in varied work environments.
Such is the unexpected variety of working in Australia’s largest library.
The benefits of such a journey can be seen in the range of materials you work with and the stories they can tell. One great example is that of aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), better known as 'Smithy'. In an era when long distance air travel was the latest frontier of adventure, an adoring public closely followed his exploits and globe trotting fame.
To find out about Smithy you come to a library to read a book. Right?
This is partly true as all manner of books on him are held in the collection, however, as any good librarian would say, libraries are more than just books.
If you navigate upstairs you find the Special Collections Reading Room where our special format collections are delivered for use.
My first stop in landing at the Library was the Maps Collection. There is an old cartographers quote, “if a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth a thousand pictures”. In other words, a map can tell a story.
Kingsford Smith’s exploits were inherently geographic, as maps were used to create and follow his journeys. The Maps Collection has a set of maps used by Kingsford Smith to navigate the first flight across the Pacific Ocean in 1928. They have the course computations jotted down and the flying route laid out in pencil and ink (no GPS, Satnav or Google Maps to do the work for you back then). Even some spilt ink stains, from turbulence, just as navigator Harry Lyon was refilling his fountain pen. These are the working documents of a great historical event, used by the participants as it unfolded.
The Pictures Collection has an image of almost everything and anything Australian, much of it digitised and viewable online.
Kingsford Smith featured in all manner of photographic and artistic creations. Photos of crowds welcoming him upon landing, official portraits, views of his planes, characterised sketches done in admiration; all tell his story through images rather than words.
The Pictures Collection also houses realia – three dimensional objects that you would normally expect in a museum. Kingsford Smith’s air force flying jacket and uniform are here, giving a unique physical presence to his story.
Then there is the one item I think has the best story of all. It is worthy of a blog all to itself, but the short version is a smelly briefcase that saved the lives of Smithy and his crew.
Personal papers in the Manuscripts Collection were not always intended to be kept forever, but by being personal they can tell a more intimate story.
The collection houses papers of Kingsford Smith himself, some of his flying partners such as Charles Ulm and P.G. Taylor, as well as aviation researchers such as Ernest Crome. They include logbooks, correspondence from family and fans, as well as radio messages to and from the plane.
Most interesting are written notes passed between the crew while flying, as the noise on board was too loud for conversations to be heard. While most are comments on flying technicalities you can sometimes see emotions coming through such as humour, boredom and stress, but also a sense of their achievement.
Buried in a manuscripts box is the one special item that started the story – Kingsford Smith’s application for a pilot’s licence in 1921.
If you don’t want to read about Smithy you can sing along for him. Songs and music were part of the public’s adoration of him and these are held in the printed Music Collection. Highlights include the simply named Smithy, the admiring Hats off to our airmen and the rousing The Southern Cross: descriptive march-gallop.
The Oral History and Folklore Collection has recorded interviews with some of those who flew and worked with Kingsford Smith. Many such recordings can be listened to online. These include his secretary Nell Rogers, business manager Beau Sheil and pilot George “Scotty” Allan.
In a wonderful blend of old and new the digitised newspapers on Trove allow you to read Smithy’s story as it was being told at the time. More is available in print and on microfilm in the Newspapers Collection. Read of the national anxiety upon news of his disappearance while flying from India to Singapore in 1935, and the eventual acceptance of his death as search parties found no trace of his plane.
A journey such as this may take time and effort, but that can be half the reward and we are here to help you through the Library's Ask a Librarian service. By exploring the full scope of the Library and the informative, rare and unique materials in the Special Collections you can uncover many more sides to a story.
You may even make some unexpected discoveries.