International Civil Aviation Organization, Montreal


A review of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Archives, Montreal, Canada.

In Fall 2010, I spent a week at the archives of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal, and it was a great experience. My dissertation was a history of the mapping sciences in the twentieth century, and I was researching the international discussion about aeronautical charts and radio navigation in the decades surrounding World War II. As part of the UN system, ICAO was (and is) mostly a forum where national delegates convene periodically to attempt to standardize the “technical” details of aviation — everything from maps or airport design to anti-hijacking procedures. Although these standards are often important in their own right (the “technical,” of course, is always political), my main interest was in the debates themselves and what they revealed about the changing assumptions, goals, and methods of organizing geographic space.

From the official “Records and Web Management” website, one might conclude (wrongly) that the ICAO archivists take relatively little interest in outside researchers. The library is allegedly only open from 10am to 1pm, and there is no mention of archival access at all. But the reply to my introductory email was perfectly friendly, and the entire division turned out to be remarkably flexible; I could work from roughly 9am to 5pm and take lunch at any time. (Getting in the front door, however, was always an involved process. You need to leave your ID, present the name of your contact, and be prepared to wait while someone from the archives comes to escort you.) I began my visit by meeting with the head of the archives division, but when she realized that I had already had specific research questions and knew which committees and conferences most interested me, she quickly turned me over to one of the staff so I could get to work. In theory, this staff member was there to help locate records, retrieve them as needed, and so on. In practice, however, she was infinitely more helpful: she took me down to the basement, unlocked the door to the archives, and let me do my research. I spent most of my time working at an old wooden desk surrounded by shelves of well-organized boxes. It was amazing.

There are a few things to note about the ICAO archives.

Holdings. Although ICAO was officially formed in 1947, it also holds the records of its interwar predecessor, the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN; also known as CINA, La Commission Internationale de Navigation Aérienne), which was headquartered in Paris; these records reach back to the early 1920s. Most ICAN documents are in the basement (mostly in French), but be sure to ask about the bound copies of the ICAN meeting minutes (in English) stored in a display case in the Legal Bureau. These bound minutes were easy to use and incredibly helpful. ICAO also holds original records from the 1944 Chicago Convention and the Provisional International Civil Aviation Organization (PICAO), which existed from 1945 to 1947.

Finding Aids. As far as I could tell, there are no real finding aids. Instead, the best way into the collection is to find out which committees have addressed the topics you are researching; you can do this in Montreal, or you can do this through published ICAO documents. Each committee has an official abbreviation, and these abbreviations are marked prominently on each box. (A typical box label might be “COM-4 1951” — these are the records of the fourth convening of the Communications Division, which took place in 1951. Some abbreviations can be rather opaque, such as FANS, GNSSP, or, my favorite, SP/COM/OPS/RAC.) There are also a large number of boxes holding the ICAO document series, organized by document number. This series, however, is not complete, and documents can be found either in the general ICAO series or in the committee boxes. (The final report of COM-4, for example, has two numbers: Doc 7171 in the general series, and COM/544 in the COM boxes. Documents with limited distribution, such COM IV–WP/126 [WP stands for “working paper”] do not have a general Doc number.) Again, I did not see any general index to documents, but I am not sure it would have helped much in any case. I found that the committee boxes were the best place to start.

Digitization. ICAO has digitized some of its press-friendly records for the web, but I did not find them to be terribly helpful. The official series of News Releases has been completely digitized; I used the Firefox “DownThemAll” plugin to download entire years at once and then used Acrobat for full-text searching. The ICAO website also includes some official records and summaries of the Chicago Convention. Be sure to click very thoroughly, though, since there are some documents hiding behind inconspicuous links.

Restrictions and Policies. I was allowed to take digital photos without restrictions, and there was also a photocopier available. I do not remember if I had to sign any forms when I first arrived, but there were essentially no limits on my research — I could see all documents from all committees from all years.

Keep in mind that this is definitely an archive where a friendly demeanor will go a long way. If you take an interest in the staff (and in the organization), they will take an interest in you and your research. I found that there was a huge difference between ICAO’s somewhat chilly public face on the web or over email and the generosity and warmth of the staff inside.

Finally, Montreal is a great place to do research. It is a lovely city with lots of yummy restaurants, interesting neighborhoods, quirky museums, and fun shops. Be sure to try some real Montreal bagels, too. (Get whatever is hot — usually sesame or poppy. I also heartily recommend Liberté brand cream cheese.) For lodging I had great luck with; there are lots of listings at very affordable prices, and I ended up renting a private apartment for a week — with kitchen, balcony, wireless internet , etc. — for much less than the cost of a hotel.

Bill Rankin
Assistant Professor
Program in the History of Science and Medicine
Yale University


Image: ICAO World Headquarters, photo by Henrickson, Wikimedia Commons.

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