So What’s Up with the SOVA? Accessing Digital Air and Space Collections on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives
October 26th, 2020, 2:34PM/ BY
Part of the fun of research is getting elbow deep into the original documents that make up the collections of the National Air and Space Museum Archives. It’s making the connection between a yellow “Votes for Women” rosette and the 19th Amendment, granting women’s suffrage, in the Ruth Law Scrapbook, which is almost the size of a person’s torso. It’s finding a photograph that has been mislabeled for almost thirty years and giving a name and a voice back to Alverna Williams, the first licensed pilot with disabilities. It’s the reality of a 1939 logbook showing that Dale L. White was refused storage at the Morgantown airport because he was black.
But we also understand that it is difficult for many researchers to make in-person visits to the Archives reading rooms at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, especially at this time in 2020. Just as you can enjoy many aspects of the Museum from your home via the Air and Space Anywhere page, you can experience the NASM Archives (and other Smithsonian collections) through the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives, or SOVA for short!
If you elect to perform your own search, we’d recommend reading through the SOVA tutorial, linked at the bottom of the page. This search engine doesn’t work quite like Google (just to pick one out of the air, so to speak).
Great, let’s try a sample search. A popular topic for many of our researchers is women in aviation. We’re going to use the phrase “women aviation,” but try different word choices--you’ll get different results for “women in aeronautics,” “women in aviation,” and “women aviators.” Our results are large: 267 records over 27 pages. You’ll notice that some of the results have a large blue box icon next to the title. That's the SOVA’s symbol for digitized material (we like to think of it as a gift box, with the gift of digital images!). Since we want to focus on collections with digital assets at the National Air and Space Museum Archives, let’s use the menu on the left of the screen to narrow our search.
What you’re now looking at is what archivists call a finding aid to a collection. The “Overview” tab provides information such as creator, donor, dates, size, scope and content (what topics are covered) and the arrangement (chronological, alphabetical, etc.) Some collections are small enough that if you click on the image on the right, you’ll get to the entire collection. Others have a “Contents” tab, taking you to what is usually a box and folder listing (if you click on the “print PDF” tab, you’ll get a PDF that combines the overview and contents pages).
On the "Contents" tab, the left menu bar provides the organization, often a box and folder listing for the collection. The right side expands the listing, often with additional description and an image of the top page of each folder. If you click on the image, you’ll be taken to a slideshow.
The slideshow offers a page by page view of the folder, with the ability to zoom and flip the image. Some slideshows even have transcriptions of the handwriting or typed text provided by volunteers at the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center.
The SOVA also contains audio collections. For example, in the Rand History Project interviews, you can listen to the oral histories conducted with employees of the Rand Corporation, in which they discuss various problems of U.S. national security during the Cold War. The typed transcripts are also available. The United States Space Program Oral History Collection contains selected digitized materials from the space program, including Mercury radio shows and public affairs recordings from the Apollo 11 launch.