Research Officer at the American Air Museum (AAM), Lucy May Maxwell, candidly discusses her experience of working on the team that created the American Air Museum's new interactive archive of images and information. The American Air Museum is located within IWM Duxford.
The new American Air Museum Website launched at the beginning of October when the AAM team opened up our online archive to the public and invited them to ‘help us make these records better’. And so far they have done just that. Each day new people are registering on the site and editing the information on there about the American airmen who served in or flew from Britain during the Second World War.
A wide range of people have contributed, including veterans themselves, the families of American servicemen who survived the war and of those who did not, volunteers at other airfield museums and people with a personal interest in the topic.
How did we get to this point?
We have been working with Manchester-based website development company Magnetic North since February this year. The first few meetings were exciting – we were going to see the fruition of part of the project, in planning since 2011, come into being – but it was also bewildering at times for both sides.
We realised that we needed to learn a lot about the ‘tech’ way of doing things and the team from Magnetic North realised that we were going to be talking rather a lot about the serial numbers, types, models and markings of aircraft, the vagaries of people’s service numbers, and the hierarchical structure of units within the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), Weather Detachments and all!
However, we all threw ourselves into the process and by the time we held a briefing event for airfield museums in late February the Magnetic North team were talking ‘B-17s’ and ‘assembly ship markings’ with the best of them.
It took us a bit longer to realise that in order for the website to draw from different data sources and match up people to their Bomb or Fighter Group and to any photographs of them in the Roger Freeman Collection we were going to need to standardise terms and punctuation in different Excel sheets up to 225,000 rows in length.
This was quite an undertaking and we were not able to completely ‘clean up’ the content of every cell such that it matched a different data source in the time available. We did enough though to be able to offer the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force’s database of 8th Air Force servicemen and the American Air Museum’s Roll of Honor, cross-referenced with each other and linked in many cases to the units, aircraft and places that each man or woman was associated with in different data sheets.
Over the past two years we have processed and catalogued the 15,000 prints and slides in the museum’s Roger Freeman Collection with the help of a team of IWM volunteers and the digitisation company Max Communications. To date we have been able to share a third of this collection on the new website as well. It has been a lot of work; initially with boxes of physical prints; then with the museum’s collections management system; and this year, with Excel. For example, constantly checking that by finding and replacing all cases of ‘Lt’ with ‘Lieutenant’ you weren’t going to get airmen suddenly listed as coming from ‘Palo ALieuantanto, California’, which would thus require the removal of this connection from their page and that location pin from the Map view. The hope is that by making this data available online new researchers, as well as those with years of experience in this subject, we will be able to see where the errors are in ways that you can’t in Excel. By editing errors in the records, each of them will be improving the veracity of records held by airfield museums like IWM Duxford which are used by researchers worldwide. As the website has been in part HLF-funded, it will remain ‘live’ for a minimum of ten years. Your time starts now.