‘Cleared for takeoff’: New website takes an inside look into the history of Pan Am

A photograph of Pan American's first around-the-world flight in 1947. Photo: University of Miami Libraries Special Collections
By Amanda M. Perez

A photograph of Pan American's first around-the-world flight in 1947. Photo: University of Miami Libraries Special Collections

‘Cleared for takeoff’: New website takes an inside look into the history of Pan Am

By Amanda M. Perez
Join University of Miami Libraries to celebrate the creation and launch of a new online portal that features thousands of Pan American World Airways materials digitized from various collections.

Although it has been decades since Pan American World Airways ruled the skies, its legacy is still alive around the world. From being the airline to fly the Beatles to the United States to airlifting the first Cuban refugees to Miami, the iconic carrier has cemented itself into different parts of history.

People across the globe will now have the opportunity to learn more about the impact the airline made through the launch of a new online portal. The “Cleared for Takeoff: Explore Commercial Aviation” documentation features Pan Am materials digitized from collections at the University of Miami, HistoryMiami Museum, and Duke University, alongside commercial aviation resources from the Digital Public Library of America’s (DPLA) partner network.

“Pan Am was such an integral part of not just aviation history, but history in general, locally, nationally, and internationally,'' explained Gabriella Williams, digital projects librarian. “Digitizing these materials means that anyone anywhere can access them at any time, increasing opportunities for discovery and analysis of the records.”

This project was made possible by a 2018 Digitizing Hidden Collections and Archives grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As part of this collaborative grant project, the University of Miami and other grant partners digitized archival records from the Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records.

Pan American special flight: The Beatles first flight to the U.S.
Pan American special flight: The Beatles' first flight to the U.S.

The University of Miami Libraries’ Pan Am collection features a wealth of materials including annual reports, periodicals, timetables, directories, manuals, press releases, speeches, and flight/route information.

“The Pan American World Airways archive is the largest and most varied of our collections, and it is certainly one of the most used,” said Cristina Favretto, librarian professor and head of Special Collections. “It has attracted researchers from around the world, working on an astonishing array of projects—from the evolution of airline meals to connections with Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. It is also heavily used by our own faculty and students, many of whom have family connections with the airline,” she pointed out. “Mentioning Pan Am to someone is like giving them a taste of Proust’s madeleine: it sparks memories and elicits stories. And the various partnerships that have helped make this important collection such an important research tool to a worldwide audience provide an excellent model of cross-institutional collaborations.”

According to Williams, who played an integral role in the digitization, “With the completion of the CLIR grant project, our Pan Am digital collection now includes 230,666 images and is one of UML’s most expansive digital collection to date,” she said.

She also noted that she believes the vast collection offers something for everyone.

“I think people will find that there’s something in the collections that will interest anyone in some way or be useful to their research,” said Williams. “Some of the overarching themes that can be extracted from the records—such as international relations and globalization, feminism and gender roles, labor rights, and environmentalism—are all things we’re still grappling with today.”

The aviation portal aims to enable students, teachers, scholars, and other researchers to easily discover and build connections across aviation collections nationwide. It includes an interactive Pan Am timeline exhibition, as well as a primary source set and a classroom lesson plan for instructors.

“It feels incredible to finally put all of our Pan Am collections together alongside dozens of other institutions’ aviation materials from across the nation, including ‘power players’ such as the National Archives and the National Air & Space Museum,” said Williams. “Our goal was to create a one-stop shop for researchers investigating commercial aviation history and we’ve accomplished that. This helps put UML and our grant partners at the forefront of innovation, and that feels very exciting.”

Williams explained that she drew a lot of inspiration for this project from some of Pan Am’s historical flights. Pan Am was the first commercial airline to fly across the Pacific Ocean in 1935.

“In the early days, there were no direct flights—you had to do it in segments and all of that took a lot of careful preparation, planning, and coordination among many people,” she reported. “In the same vein, this grant project was very similar. How do you build a subject-based research tool that never existed before? It couldn’t be done all at once. There were a lot of moving parts and we had to assemble it piece by piece.”

University of Miami Libraries and its grant partners will host an online presentation on Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 3 p.m. Participate in the webinar to learn more about the newly launched website.