Leonard Bruno took a temporary writing and research job in the Library of Congress’ Science and Technology Division in 1969. Twenty-six years later he joined the manuscript division, where he now looks after for some of aviation’s most historic documents, including the Wright Brothers’ papers. Air & Space Senior Editor Pat Trenner spoke to him in April 2007.
A&S: As the science manuscript specialist, you’re responsible for over 500 individual collections covering nearly all the major science and technology disciplines. Is it frustrating to spread yourself so thin?
Bruno: Having to cover the entire S&T waterfront is actually enjoyable, since I’m not a scientist and therefore not an expert in any one branch of science and technology. I like to think I’ve turned a liability into a virtue: I’ve become a true generalist who feels equally uncomfortable in every field. I certainly never get bored, as I can range, in any one day, from ecology to computers to astronomy or biology.
A&S: Name some of your aeronautics treasures.
Bruno: Since we have the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, as well as the Octave Chanute Papers, some of our more stunning aeronautical items come from those collections. Orville’s 1903 diary, in which he writes an account of the brothers’ first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, has to be considered a true treasure, while Wilbur’s 5-page letter to Octave Chanute written on May 13, 1900 is also a remarkable document. I’ve always viewed this letter as a sort of uncompromising manifesto, saying, this is what I believe and this is what I’m going to do. And he and Orville did it! We also have a tiny brown notebook Orville kept during their months at Huffman Prairie in 1904-05, on the outside cover of which he wrote a note to posterity, saying, "This book carried on machine in all of flights recorded in it. OW" It’s always a thrill to be able to hold something that flew with Orville every time he flew in Ohio. Besides Wright material, we have a long letter from Benjamin Franklin to Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society of London), dated November 21, 1783—the date of the first manned balloon flight, which he witnessed. Franklin’s letter to Banks about the flight is not only replete with important technical descriptions but is an insightful, witty, and truly prescient commentary on this revolutionary achievement.
A&S: Anything out there that you especially long to acquire?
Bruno: There is no one particular item of which I’m aware that I’d really love to obtain, although over the years we have seen some spectacular retrospective collections of aeronautica pass us by because we could not afford them.
A&S: What do you consider the most valuable aviation document known to exist (whether or not the Library has it)?
Bruno: Although specialists in the Manuscript Division are prohibited from appraising documents, in terms of sheer monetary value, I’d have to guess that Orville’s 1903 diary has to be the most valuable. Here we have, as it were from the horse’s mouth, one of the fathers of flight detailing in his own hand, his and Wilbur’s daily activities as well as their revolutionary accomplishments from September 23, 1903 when they left Dayton to December 19, 1903 when they completed packing their machine and tools and left Kitty Hawk for home and Christmas.
A&S: Do you decide what to go after?
Bruno: I’m the one who generally initiates a solicitation of someone’s papers or the acquisition of a certain collection, but always with the concurrence of my chief. Money is naturally always a factor in what we’re able to purchase, but in fact, the majority of our acquisitions come to us as a gift. For example, we recently obtained the papers of two Nobel Prize winners (the astrophysicist, Arno Penzias, whose discovery suported the big bang theory of the universe, and the electrical engineer, Jack St. Clair Kilby, who invented the integrated circuit chip and the hand-held calculator) simply because we asked for them.
A&S: Does the general public have access to the collections?
Bruno: Although we maintain a real research collection and function as a library rather than a museum (meaning we do not encourage tourists to walk in and ask to hold Orville’s diary), we do serve any members of the general public who come to the Manuscript Division Reading Room and are of age and are engaged in serious research. They do not have to have an instititional affiliation.