A Student’s Perspective of the Royal Air Force Museum Archives

After my second research visit to the RAF Museum back in June, I was asked if I would be interested in writing a short piece about my experience at the Museum’s archives. I agreed to write the piece as not only did I enjoy my time at the archives, but it would also be a great opportunity to reflect on my research/archival process and how each of the sources I viewed fit critically into my thesis aims. If you would like to check out the RAF Blog’s post on my research visit and research topic, please check out this link: 

Here is the piece I wrote traveling home in June: 

My name is Abby Whitlock and I am a fourth year student studying History and European Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Recently, I spent two and a half weeks in England looking at sources for my honors thesis on the Royal Flying Corps. In my thesis, I am exploring how social identity (i.e. education, occupation, social class, etc.) influenced interactions between pilots, ground crew, etc. 

As a part of my research, I needed to view sources located at the Royal Air Force Museum’s Archive. Before I travelled to England for my research visit, I looked through the RAF Museum’s collections to find what I needed. With specific keywords, individuals, and documents in mind, it was very easy to locate related sources in the Navigator search engine. Since my research was based primarily at the University of Cambridge, I knew I would probably need to schedule more than one appointment to get through all the sources.  

My sources were primarily connected to Major James Thomas Byford McCudden, VC and other members of 56 Squadron, such as Captain Albert Ball VC and Lieutenant Arthur Rhys Davids. During my visit to the archives last year, one of the most interesting sources I looked at were the set of notebooks comprising the manuscript for Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, McCudden’s memoir.  With these notebooks, it was interesting to see the evolution of his writing and how the edits made the work-in-progress different from the finished product. In my most recent visits, I focused on squadron rosters, newspaper articles about different pilots, and personal letters. In the case of the personal letters, I was looking to see if descriptions of squadron life showed a clear connection with social identity. With the newspaper articles, I focused on descriptions of top pilots and the different components used in describing their character. 

Since I started my research process almost two years ago, I have had many different experiences at the various archives I have visited. These have ranged from small historical societies to bigger institutions like the Imperial War Museum and the University of Cambridge. Despite these varied experiences, my three visits to the RAF Museum archives have been some of the best experiences I have had during my research period.  Although the archives are located at the RAF Museum’s London location, you would not think it once you step foot into the reading room. My second visit fell during half-term, meaning there were a lot of children and their families visiting the museum. Although there was a large number of people there, I barely thought about it once I got to the reading room. Comfortably filled with the noise of staff members quietly working, the space is an easy one to adjust to. 

As not all materials were able to be photocopied/reproduced, I needed to take photographs of the different sources I was viewing. After paying a very small photography fee and filling out paperwork stating the purpose and intended finished product of my research, I was able to use my cell phone and personal digital camera to photograph sources. Along with photographs, there is a very reasonable reprographic service that can provide photocopies of eligible materials. In addition to the appointment-making process being very simple (a simple email or phone call to set up dates and explain the nature of my research), it was very easy to request more materials during my own appointment. 

Although the source material is the main part of research, the respective environment has a major impact on the quality of research done. Between the wealth of information in the museum exhibits and the knowledgeable staff willing to help you with research questions. At the museum’s archives, it is nearly impossible to leave your research appointment without gaining some sort of new perspective on the topic you are researching. Although relatively short, my time spent at the museum and its archives have been some of the most interesting and fulfilling experiences of my research period so far. I hope to return to the RAF Museum for future research visits and to see how the museum collections grow and develop.