Two views of the library at 7 Albemarle Street in 1936. RAeS (NAL).

At a Council meeting on 19 December 1896, the decision was taken to build a library by buying books. By 1937 the library was outgrowing the available accommodation at the Society’s offices at 7 Albemarle Street and this was one of the reasons for prompting the move to No.4 Hamilton Place, where the large first-floor drawing room became the library’s new home. By 1987 it was realised that this room was needed more frequently for both Society functions and outside lettings. The library was therefore moved to the third floor and the vacated room became the Argyll Room, named after the Society’s founder and first President. In the following years other rooms were also named – Brabazon (currently the Members’ Bar), Cayley (currently the Reading Room), de Havilland (now restored to its former open state), Handley Page, Sopwith, Hawker, Merlin, Eagle and Jupiter (the last three were in the basement).

The library in the Argyll Room at No.4 Hamilton Place c.1980. RAeS (NAL).

The library on the third floor overlooking Hyde Park Corner shortly before it moved to Farnborough in August 2009. RAeS (NAL).

Following the Pioneers of Flight Exhibition held 4-9 August 2003 – during which many key documents and publications tracing the early development of powered flight held in the Library’s archives were displayed at Hamilton Place – the then RAeS President, Sir Peter Norriss KBE CB AFC FRAeS, noted how the exhibition had underlined the historical importance of the material in the Society’s care, raising the question of how it should be looked after in future, suggesting that a ‘national aviation library’ should perhaps be created to accommodate such heritage collections.

The National Aerospace Library

The National Aerospace Library in Farnborough in 2015. RAeS (NAL).

A Society Library Working Party was subsequently formed and over the following years the Library’s holdings (the vast majority of which were stored in rather cramped conditions in the basement of Hamilton Place underneath the lecture theatre) were reviewed in considerable detail. The development of this basement area into the new Airbus Business Suite in 2005 necessitated that alternative accommodation needed to be found to house much of this material and over various major moves many 1,000s of journals, technical reports and other publications were placed into storage in the old RAE ‘A Shed’ hangar at TAG Farnborough Airport, where they were shelved alongside the archives of BAE Systems Heritage.

This was intended to be a temporary storage arrangement until the Society established a more permanent home for the material but it was some years until the Society opened a ‘satellite’ library archive to complement the existing Library collections and service at the London headquarters.

Located at Farnborough Business Park in the former Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Q134 Weapon Aerodynamics/Space building, now known as The Hub, the National Aerospace Library opened for researchers on 27 November 2007, housing over 10,000 books and 40,000 technical reports formerly held in the basement at Hamilton Place, with additional staff support initially provided through the Hampshire Public Library service.

In May 2009 the Society’s Presidential Advisory Committee decided to relocate the whole Library operation to Farnborough, along with the Careers and Education Department, the Society acquiring the lease to the adjoining area known as ‘The Secret Factory’, which formerly housed an exhibition on the history of the Farnborough site, into which the now much-enlarged Library expanded, the Library move being completed in August 2009.

The Collections

The library has grown, by bequests, gifts and purchases, into one of the most comprehensive aeronautical libraries in the world, for both technical and historical material. The resources of the library are used in many ways, apart from the borrowing of books by members.

The library is centred around essentially five major collections of books/pamphlets, journals, technical reports, regulatory material and the photographic collections (original photographs, glass lantern slides, ballooning lithographs, posters).

The Society’s library holds an extensive collection of over 30,000 books (including directories, conference proceedings, pamphlets and many rare books and unpublished papers). Extensive holdings are held of various company brochures and other internal publications produced by many of the leading aircraft companies over the years and, in particular, there are extensive holdings relating to the Bristol Aeroplane Company (and its predecessor British and Colonial Aeroplane Company) and Junkers. Particular note should be made of the library’s holdings of the Cuthbert-Hodgson, Poynton, Maitland and Lord Ventry collections of early ballooning, airship and other early aeronautical material.

The worldwide coverage of its journal holdings is a key strength of the library and, as this has been a policy of the Society since its formation, it has resulted in probably a unique collection recording the development of aviation around the world.

The Society’s library is a depository library for all ICAO publications (including the Documents, Circulars, Annexes and Digest of Statistics series). and holds a complete set of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and the Putnam reference series.

Concerning photographs, the Society’s library holds a very extensive photographic/glass lantern slide/lithographic collection of aviation images (well over 100,000) from the early days of ballooning through to the present day. Many thousands of digitised images from the collection can be viewed via the website managed by the Mary Evans Picture Library.

Many of the early members of the Society and their descendants had the foresight to leave for posterity their books and papers to the Society and the Society’s library holds, among other pioneers, letters and other manuscripts of Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), John Stringfellow (1799-1883), Wilbur Wright (1867-1912), Orville Wright (1871-1948), Katharine Wright (1874-1929), Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915), Major B F S Baden-Powell (1860-1937), C G Grey (1875-1953) and the design notebooks of F S Barnwell (1880-1938), in addition to various files of papers relating to the long history of the Society itself.

The library continues to be offered books and other aviation material by individuals, companies and organisations.

The library online

In 1998 computerisation of the library’s extensive catalogue was completed, the new web-based version, searchable via the Society’s website (, being launched in 2013.

To coincide with the 2003 centenary celebrations of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, the texts of the library’s Wright letters were published in full (Letters of the Wright Brothers, edited by Brian Riddle and Colin Sinnott and published by Tempus Publishing).

Digitisation of eight separate archive projects (Sir George Cayley notebooks [five], Wright letters, Lawrence Hargrave photograph albums [two], Percy Pilcher drawings, Horace Short’s Notebook, Henson’s 1842-43 Aerial Steam Carriage drawings, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company Ltd Minute Book No.1 1910-1919 and the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain – Council Minutes Volume 1866-1909) was undertaken in 2014. In parallel a dedicated website was developed during 2015 to enable researchers to view these key documents in the development of aviation on a page-by-page basis, and so help to raise the profile of the National Aerospace Library and its collections – one the world’s most extensive archives of material recording the evolution of Man’s attempts to conquer the dream of flight from prehistory to modern times.

For further information contact the National Aerospace Library.
T +44 (0)1252 701038 or 701060

16 August 2016