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Beyond the stamp: Using the NPM library

Anyone pursuing a burning question feels somewhat like a search dog sniffing every possible location and finding the quarry just often enough to maintain enthusiasm. When you find it, the exhilaration electrifies, and when you don’t, you might catch yourself staring at sitcoms out of frustration. But soon, the question starts to burn again.

Research can take a person into the Internet, archives, lab, library, or field. For every illuminating phone call or interview, one is also likely to spend days or years poring over records, journals, catalogs, and correspondence. The National Postal Museum (NPM) library holdings include these and much more, including sophisticated forensic equipment for which we had no need—but you might.

We recently had the opportunity to spend three weeks at the NPM, hunting information for our book about the Inverted Jenny, Stamp of the Century. The first regular airmail flight, signaled by the creation of the red and blue 24c stamp with a picture of the Curtiss JN4, is intrinsic to the story and raises one of our many burning questions: 

How did the first regular airmail flights get put together?

Describing the effort to answer this question provides a way to describe our three-weeks of research at the NPM library, as well as to offer tips on using the other archives and libraries we explored while in Washington, D.C.


Even if you think your question is unique, it’s always good to do some reconnaissance. This helps you to see what you can easily find online from home or through interlibrary loan. What you find will inform your project and help you prepare for your work at NPM, so that you can focus on what you can examine only in person. A good place to begin is the silver banner at the top of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum website. The banner contains section tabs and a search tool. See what you get when you search a term associated with your question; then, follow the leads. In particular, examine the options associated with three tabs in particular:

Collections – Selecting the online collection database or photographic archives provides a link to the postal museum object and photograph database, Arago, (named for a scientist friend of James Smithson who endowed the Smithsonian).
Exhibits – By making a selection and then clicking a topic, one might be lucky enough to benefit from research on a wide range of topics that has already been performed and organized by museum staff and volunteers.
Research – Explore all the options listed under this tab and then home in on Museum Library.
Our reconnaissance turned up a number of objects on Arago, along with some nice descriptions. There were images of letters, logbooks, people, clothing, and postage. One search returned a very useful finding guide, quite a number of which the museum has prepared on various special collections of documents.

Archive vs library material

Using the finding guide for the Benjamin B. Lipsner Airmail Collection, Deborah spent several days in the library examining archival folders of material saved by the first civilian superintendent of airmail for the Post Office Department. As superintendent, Lipsner was the man responsible for devising the infrastructure and services on which the pilots and planes depended, and the finding guide provides a detailed inventory of the collection.

Using it in the library to find Lipsner’s papers, however, Deborah discovered that the Lipsner Airmail Collection wasn’t stored in one place. Also, as archival materials, Lipsner’s papers are not listed in the library catalog. Other uncataloged archival materials include reports, the correspondence of the third assistant postmaster general (juicier than you’d think), short run journals, personal papers and documents, photos, and miscellaneous bits of ephemera.

Deborah spent several days poking around the library, asking questions, and examining whatever turned up. One drawer in the research chair’s office was full of as-yet-unsequenced files. Later, she stumbled upon caches of files in other corners of the library under different topics. Dan Piazza invited her to see a first-day airmail pilot’s log book that had been pulled from the burning wreckage after his fatal crash, part of the museum collection kept in a climate-controlled vault.

She discovered more Lipsner material in other archives around D.C., some associated with other Smithsonian units and some with other governmental agencies. Exploiting all essential sources and doing it efficiently requires an orientation to the library and some interaction with NPM staff members (though it is bad form to monopolize their time). Even more though, research success takes commitment and persistence.


Having made prior arrangements to visit the NPM Library, we began our hunt for informational treasure with an orientation from librarian Baasil Wilder. Wilder welcomes researchers to the repository and gladly acquaints users with its materials and requirements. As a professional, Wilder is devoted to libraries as sanctuaries. “It’s like running a space station,” he mentioned during our stay. “I send people to other countries, other planets, and other time periods.”

Wilder emphasizes the postal museum library’s distinction as a government collection like the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and archives at other Smithsonian units. The facility does not provide an on-call reference desk librarian of the sort available at public libraries, but he can explain the layout, offer search tips, and show you where to place items when finished. (Do not reshelve them yourself.) Therefore, you need to define a research topic in order to use it.

Find cataloged material, using the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Typing a search term in any of the fields is likely to render a range of topics. If you don’t see something you want, go back to the search page and try another term or field. If what you seek appears among the results, click it and examine the items. If the National Postal Museum is listed as the collection where an item resides, jot down the call number and look for it in the stacks when you get there.

Other sources

Because there are 21 Smithsonian libraries, you may find that what you want is listed in another collection. You have three basic options to see materials. If you are using the catalog from home, you might be able to see some items online. If you’re looking for a book, report, or other printed matter, the easiest way to get it might be to use your public library’s interlibrary loan system. Otherwise, you can make an appointment at the library for the collection shown and go there to view it onsite.

Using Google and SIRIS, Deborah readily found some useful items but looking at other government collections online yielded limited results for her topic. She found it useful to go to three other collections in person.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has two sets of archives, one on the National Mall and one at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. An online search of collections describes what you can see in person. At the Udvar-Hazy Center archives you can examine technical materials such as handbooks for assembling a Curtiss JN. At the National Mall location you can sit and read biographical files such as letters written by Jenny creator, Glenn Curtiss.

The United States Postal Service (USPS), responsible for starting airmail, has online resources including significant dates, historical statistics, photo galleries, and a nice section on moving the mail, which features airmail history. Onsite we had access to official Post Office Department (the name of the USPS in 1918) records related to the design and sale of the 24-cent stamp.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which produced the 24-cent stamp (including the Invert to its dismay) has a Historical Resource Center, but doesn’t offer much online. You can send them a query, but be prepared to wait awhile for a reply. In person, we were able to see a set of original 24-cent stamp die proofs and read through personnel files on its designers and engravers.

Two other important and very large repositories to peruse are the National Archives and the Library of Congress. In their collections we found materials for nationally prominent people like Glenn Curtiss and institutions likes USPS and BEP. Again, you can view some materials online, but you’ll have to make an appointment to explore others.

Research tips

The Smithsonian and other government libraries and archives contain many precious one-of-a-kind materials. Unlike the ever-rotating options at a public library, these institutions have the responsibility for collecting and conserving material important to understanding American history, culture, and scientific pursuit. As citizens, we have the right to view our primary sources and an obligation to leave them unsullied for the next researcher.

All of these libraries and archives are free, but unlike your neighborhood library, you can’t just walk in. Each organization has its own hours, appointment protocols, and rules for use. If you want to get copies of photos or plan to use copies of photos or technical drawings in a publication or on a website, check with each institution about their permissions procedures. There may be fees involved. Before booking your travel plans, consider the following:

  1. Carefully check each archive site to find out how to schedule an appointment. NPM procedures are relatively simple while the National Archives are more complex, requiring a short orientation process and issuance of a researcher identification card.

  2. Send a list of research topics in advance. Many institutions invite you to email the staff and describe what you’ll be looking for. We found this very helpful at Air and Space, for example, where the enthusiastic archivists pulled useful files we hadn’t even thought of related to our research.

  3. Know where you’re going. Many archives and libraries are clustered in and around the National Mall, but the Udvar-Hazy Center is out by Dulles Airport and big sections of the National Archives are spread among 17 states. Their websites provide details.

  4. Always bring a government-issued photo ID with you, such as a passport or driver’s license. All government institutions require this before you are allowed to enter their  libraries or archives.

  5. Arrive early for your appointment. All federal buildings have security in place, which includes airport-style x-ray machines and scanners. It can take 10-20 minutes to get through security and wait for your escorts to arrive to convey you the library.

  6. Have the right supplies. Most of the institutions listed will only allow you to use pencils for taking notes, thus avoiding accidents with ink or other writing implements. You can bring your own paper for taking notes, except at the National Archives where special cards are provided. Most archives, but not all, will allow you to take no-flash photos of some documents or make photocopies onsite for which you’ll need to pay. Some archives such as Air and Space will not allow you to take photos of photos or technical drawings.

  7. Bring quarters. You may need to lock up your coats, backpacks, purses, etc., while you’re working. Most institutions provide lockers.

  8. No food; no drink. Most institutions we visited have cafeterias onsite or access to coffee shops nearby. Keep in mind that you’ll have to go in and out of security, however, which can chew up valuable research time. Eat a hearty breakfast!

Finally, be considerate and patient. We quickly saw that NPM’s librarian Baasil Wilder is a very hard-working employee. As he says, “The library is a living organism…there’s always work to do.” At the same time, he is committed to supporting independent researchers, and he cordially guided our efforts when we got stuck. The locations we visited house millions of documents, photos, and objects, many of which are catalogued, making things easy to find, but many more are not. You may not find exactly what you’re looking for, but then again, you’ll no doubt stumble onto gems that you never imagined.

Did Deborah answer her burning question? Yes, but there are more questions, now. Sound familiar?

Kellen Diamanti and Deborah Fisher live and write in the Pacific Northwest. More about their book, scheduled for publication in spring of 2018, can be found at