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The Library Collection As Viewed By A Scholar

Dr. David H. DeVorkin, Curator of Astronomy

National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution


I am delighted to be here tonight and am deeply honored to be asked by Captain Foster to say a few words in appreciation not only of the event, but for the continued health of the James Melville Gilliss Library.

A great library like this one is far more than a collection of books. It is a well-tuned engine for research central to the conduct of astronomy. It is not a passive repository without a mind, heart and soul of its own. It is very much a living and growing, constantly changing tool for research aiding an institu- tion and discipline that are constantly changing. It is kept alive by well-informed and dedicated staff knowledgeable of the needs of the discipline, aided by enlightened institutional policies that recognize that an organized body of information is central to their mission.

Why is this so? Astronomy traditionally has been a science of systematic accumulation of evidence. I would like to quote the Canadian astronomer J. S. Plaskett on this, for he sensed the nature of his discipline very nicely some 85 years ago:

Astronomy is, perhaps more than any other, a science which requires long continued and systematic investigations to be carried through with faithfulness, unselfishness, and untiring perseverance before any definite results can be obtained. All honor to the astronomers of the past, who spent their lives in making observations of which they themselves could not hope to reap any fruit, and all honor to the astronomers of the present, who are unselfishly collecting data which only a future generation can use. [Plaskett, J. S., 1911. "Some Recent Interesting Developments in Astronomy," JRASC TBC:245--265]

Astronomy has changed in profound ways since Plaskett uttered these words, but one can still find at the core of astronomy sentiments close to his. Plaskett knew that the best fruit slowly ripened on the vine. He lived at a time when, in the words of an historian, astronomers were "willing to put up with regimentation, systematization, and discipline in exchange for the opportunity of contributing to astronomy." [Rothenberg, 1981, 314.] But they expected their contributions to be preserved. Therefore Plaskett could well have honored the librarian as he did the observer.

Indeed, all these contributions, to be useful for posterity, had to be gathered together and made avail- able. In Plaskett's day, this was a straightforward task. Most observations of value were published in observatory reports, and the world's observatories had long shared their work on a quid pro quo basis with all other participating observatories. There were few journals of record in astronomy worthy of international reputation, and those were relatively easy to acquire and to keep track of as were major monographs. Of course this also meant that astronomical articles were often published in non-astronomical general science journals, which complicated life a bit, and at a place like the Naval Observatory mathematical journals had to be followed closely too. Yet the world of astronomical literature was then comparatively straightforward. Everything was published on paper.

Today, all this has changed. There are scores of journals, countless conference reports, symposia, monographs and a bewildering array of scientific and technical publications that must be collected, organized, indexed and made accessible, if not key-word addressable. The database now takes on many forms, photographic, optical and electronic. The quid pro quo system of trading observatory reports, while still alive somewhat, is no longer central as a means of consistent reference. Someone, somehow, has to keep track of all of it. And, moreover, someone has to worry about the preservation of older records, which by the nature of the highly acidic paper they were printed on are slowly burning themselves to ash. Especially at an observatory like this one, with its mission of gauging the regularities and the non-regularities in the motions of the heavenly bodies, the data stored in the masses of observatory reports is still a critical part of the research engine. As Plaskett well knew, the older the data, the riper it becomes, and the more cherished. But data are not the only thing in need of preservation. So are the tools and techniques of the trade, preserved as well in observatory chronicles, journal publications and texts.

To the extent that they preserve the tools and techniques as well as the data forming the heritage of astronomy, libraries are engines for research in that they are purposeful systems dedicated to a set of institutional goals. But the Gilliss Library is even more than that. It has transcended past institutional goals and therefore has helped to maintain the institution at the front rank of its science. Merely by looking at its present holdings, one suspects that the library's collecting policies must have been broader than the stated mission of the institution at any one time. This is a most happy circumstance, because as the tools of astronomy have changed, moving from strictly visual techniques to photographic techniques to electronic techniques, and as the many forms of mathematical and physical investigation have branched out providing new means and methods of analysis and interpretation, the library already had acquired the means that allowed its staff to constantly refresh itself, to adapt as needed or desired to these new tools, or to face newly emerging areas of inquiry.

I recognize that this is an a-historical perspective because I am looking at the library only as it exists today - Maybe I am assuming too much. But I have personal evidence that this is so. I know that the library was not created for historical research, for instance. However, I have found it to be the most valuable and accessible resource for historical research in astronomy not only in Washington, which is saying alot already, but in a far larger circle encompassing the greatest observatory libraries in the nation. Its holdings are consistent, usually complete, fully accessible, and constitute more than the formally published record. One only has to look at the acknowledgements in recent books on the history of astronomy to get a sense of how important this resource has been to his- torians.

Brenda Corbin, Gregory Shelton and their predecessors have done a terrific job keeping this library vibrant, accessible, and friendly. They care for its oldest parts, those in danger of self-destruction, and manage to keep up with the ever-broadening astronomical information database, using whatever medium is most appropriate. They recognize that no matter how electronic the world gets, it will still be some time before the printed page will cease to exist. Yet, knowing that so many old pages are crumbling before our eyes, they have taken strong steps to try and preserve the information contained on those pages using the most appropriate technologies and cooperative strategies available. This is a daunting task, but it is essential.

For all the vital assistance that the staff and the observatory have given to historians, I salute Brenda and Greg, and the staff of the Naval Observatory, for their dedication to the heritage of astronomy, embodied in the James Melville Gilliss Library.

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