Category: Digitising Historical Records

Finding Charles Ulm

I had never heard of Charles Ulm until I saw his record in the National Library of Australia catalogue. I was drawn to him by his unusual surname: who was this man?

The Ulm catalogue entry has a link to a ‘finding aid’ which leads to a treasure trove of Ulm’s personal papers. Now I was getting somewhere.


But what is a ‘finding aid’?

It’s literally an aid to assist you – the researcher – find out what the Library holds. It may surprise you that not only does the Library collect books, it also collects manuscripts and papers of significant Australians. So these ‘finding aids’ are intended to assist researchers unearth the holdings of those many boxes of papers.

Back in the mid-20th Century, if the Library accepted an author’s – or other significant person’s – papers, they were often overwhelmed by the amount of content: manuscripts, notes, chits, cheque book stubs, maps, photographs – anything that had been stored and saved over a person’s life. As the Library could not individually catalogue each item – or each piece of paper – in this vast collection, an archivist would type up a list of items contained in a box. These pieces of paper – or finding aids – were filed away in neat cabinets. The contents of the boxes had been itemised, but the finding aids were only accessible to researchers at the physical Library: you’d have to let your fingers do the walking through many filing cabinets.

It was only when the Library was able to digitise these paper finding aids that the content of Charles Ulm’s boxes – and other significant Australian individuals and organisations – has been revealed to a broader audience. I am privileged to have contributed a small amount to this worthy cause: BG Publishers worked with the Library to convert the paper finding aids to digital data, now included in the Library’s digital infrastructure.


So who was Charles Ulm?

He was an aviator, adventurer and businessman. In 1928, together with Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Ulm co-piloted the first crossing of the Pacific. He later set the speed record for the trip from England to Australia, travelling for 6 days, 17 hours and 56 minutes. In 1934, Ulm set up Great Pacific Airways, intending to operate a San Francisco to Sydney air service. Sadly that same year, Charles Ulm died over the Pacific when his plane crashed into the sea.

Ulm’s achievements are brought to life by the Library holdings: the finding aid reveals Ulm’s charts, books, maps, papers and letters. Researchers will now know what is held by the Library – and finding Charles Ulm will have been made just that little bit easier.


Charles Ulm