AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XL , No. 2, Fall 2008

AAS Working Group Acts to Preserve Astronomical Heritage
By Stephen McCluskey

Among the physical sciences, astronomy has a long tradition of constructing centers of teaching and research– in a word, observatories. The heritage of these centers survives in their physical structures and instruments; in the scientific data recorded in their observing logs, photographic plates, and instrumental records of various kinds; and more commonly in the published and unpublished records of astronomers and of the observatories at which they worked. These records have continuing value for both historical and scientific research.

In January 2007 the American Astronomical Society (AAS) formed a working group to develop and disseminate procedures, criteria, and priorities for identifying, designating, and preserving structures, instruments, and records so that they will continue to be available for astronomical and historical research, for the teaching of astronomy, and for outreach to the general public.

The scope of this charge is quite broad, encompassing astronomical structures ranging from archaeoastronomical sites to modern observatories; papers of individual astronomers, observatories and professional journals; observing records; and astronomical instruments themselves.

Reflecting this wide scope, the members of the working group include historians of astronomy, practicing astronomers and observatory directors, and specialists in astronomical instruments, archives, and archaeology.

The first item on the working group’s agenda was to determine how best to maintain the records of the Society’s journals. Of immediate concern are the extensive and historically important records of the Astrophysical Journal from the editorship of Helmut Abt (1974-99), which are presently in temporary storage in Tucson.

The working group contacted a number of major libraries, many of them actively associated with astronomical research, regarding this collection. To date there has been general agreement on the importance of this collection, but its size and the restrictions placed upon its use by the AAS have made research libraries reluctant to take on the responsibility of managing the collection.

Of immediate concern to working astronomers is the problem of preserving, cataloging, and making available the extensive historical holdings of astronomical photographic plates. Two members of the working group who have previously been active in this area, Elizabeth Griffin and Wayne Osborne, organized a workshop dealing with this issue.

As a result of this workshop the working group has recommended the development of an archive of North American photographic plates at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina. As a step toward improving access to these plates, in cooperation with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Task Force on the Preservation and Digitization of Photographic Plates, the working group is conducting a preliminary census of astronomical photographic plates in North America.

An overarching concern of the working group is to investigate the scientific and historical benefits of preserving these elements of the historical record. To meet that role we are encouraging research into the uses of historical data in astronomical research, into the uses of archival materials for historical research, and into the factors contributing to decisions to preserve nineteenth and twentieth century astronomical observatories.

The working group welcomes inquiries and can provide advice about the preservation of existing astronomical materials and records.

Further information about the working group and its members can be found on the AAS website at

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