Story and photos by Steve Finkelman, AAM Communications Coordinator


John Liddle spent 25 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as an aircraft technician.

But when he joined the the Alberta Aviation Museum in 2012 as a volunteer it was the library, not the restoration shop, that attracted his attention.

“It’s an interest I have had all my life,” says Liddle, who for the past seven years has been in charge of the museum’s library. “My father encouraged me to read from a very, very young age and we were always surrounded by books at home. My sister and I were encouraged to use the reference books we had at home. We were encouraged to use the libraries at the various places we were living. It’s just something that stuck with me.”

Liddle grew up as an ‘air force brat.’ His father was a radar technician, serving both in Canada and in Europe during the Second World War. He went on to complete a 30-year career in the military back in Canada. Son John signed up in Ottawa in 1966 and also trained as a radar technician before transferring to the then-new trade of non-destructive testing. He served in Lahr, Germany, Trenton, Ontario and in Edmonton and Cold Lake in Alberta. When he left the military in 1991 he worked for Spar Aerospace, among others, in the NDT field.

John Liddle, a few years after he signed up to be an RCAF radar technician in the late 1960s. (John Liddle collection)

After retiring in 2011, he was looking around for something to fill his time. Liddle wandered into the to the museum.

“Maurice Pink, Cliff Rhind and Keith Hannan (the previous library volunteers and Second World War veterans) were in the process of retiring,” says Liddle. “They were quite elderly and I moved into that position and have been running the library since.”

When Liddle assumed responsibility for the collection he was faced with a major organizational challenge.

“I give credit to the previous gentlemen. They had a very good written system. It was all on three-ring paper in a binder,” Liddle remembers. “But it was a mess.”

Liddle’s tiny office is crammed with flight suits, books and pictures of museum staff dressed up like jet pilots of the past.

“There were magazines stacked three shelves high right up into the rafters. The fire department did an inspection one day and we had to get rid of them. And we had two and three copies of almost everything.”

Liddle and his volunteers began culling. The magazines and extra copies of books were put on sale in the museum gift shop to raise some much-needed funds for the library. Then one of his volunteers, a student in the University of Alberta Master of Libraries and Information Studies Program, found a suitable electronic database. And so began the laborious task of creating online entries for all materials.

“It took four years to get everything organized,” he says. “Only in the past couple of years have we made real progress.”

Today the museum library is a model of modernity for aviation research with almost five thousand books, manuals and other publications that are accessible online.

“We cover aviation history, autobiography and technical manuals related to the Edmonton area, Alberta, Canada and the World. But we primarily concern ourselves with material relating to the British Commonwealth. “

Liddle says the library is getting better known across the aviation field and has had many requests from historians in North America and Europe. The facility is also available to anyone who wants to come and browse, including those seeking information on specific aircraft specifications and their operations.

Liddle helping fit out a model in a Second World War-era flight suit for a photo shoot at the museum.

The museum also serves as a training ground for young librarians who are seeking some experience working in a technical library.

“I have a very good collection of Canadian Air Force technical manuals plus a number of good American ones and Royal Air Force publications. We also have a reasonable collection of civilian aircraft operating and maintenance manuals. Let us know what you are looking for. Come in and we can provide you with a research seat. We also have equipment for scanning and copying.”

But it’s not all about books and manuals for this former technician.

“I have to get my hands in things. I like having a tool box.”

Liddle still likes to ‘get his hands dirty’ working on airplanes like the T-33 restoration.

Because of his background, and his access to the technical manuals, Liddle is also overseeing restoration work on the Bell 206, the T-33 and the Sabre.

He is also responsible for the museum’s extensive collection of military uniforms and flying kit. One of Liddle’s hobbies is dressing up museum staff as fighter pilots from days gone by. Photos of these photo sessions cover several walls of the library.

Liddle would like to get the word out to members of the museum, many of whom have never been in the library. Some don’t even know it exists due to its almost hidden location in the south east corner of the hangar, behind the deHavilland Mosquito exhibit.

“I would like it when museum members can wander in and browse. Members can sign out most materials. We encourage people to do that.”

Check out the museum’s online database here. You can find more information about the doing research at the Alberta Aviation Museum Library here.