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Prominent astrophysics library is set to close

Prominent astrophysics library is set to close

15 February 2024

The Wolbach Library has hosted collections from the Harvard College and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatories since 1975.

A building on a university campus.
The Wolbach Library is located within the Perkin Laboratory building in the Observatory Hill neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Credit: Shelley Zatsky

The Wolbach Library at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to one of the world’s largest collections of astrophysical materials, will cease operations at the end of March.

Lisa Kewley, director of the CfA, announced that the library will shut down in a 23 January email to the CfA staff, citing budgetary constraints as the driving factor. The Wolbach’s operations will be integrated into the Harvard Library’s, she wrote, and the collections split between Harvard and the center. Asked about the library’s three full-time and two part-time staff members, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) says that the employees are engaging with human resources.

The decision is a “bombshell,” says former Wolbach head librarian Daina Bouquin, who was among the researchers and community members who expressed shock at the suddenness of the action.

Established in 1975, the Wolbach Library arose from the merger of collections from the Harvard College Observatory and the SAO and is housed at the CfA, a collaboration between the two institutions. The library contains historic artifacts like mid-19th-century daguerreotypes of the Moon taken by astrophotographer John Adams Whipple and others. Its Preserving Harvard’s Early Data and Research in Astronomy collection includes more than 2500 notebooks produced by women astronomers (then referred to as computers) from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“There aren’t many astronomy- or astrophysics-specific libraries on the planet,” says Bouquin, who is now the data and operations research manager at the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s a very special, unique place.”

A framed daguerreotype of the Moon.
This 1852 daguerreotype by John Adams Whipple is among the earliest known photographs of the Moon. Credit: John G. Wolbach Library, Harvard College Observatory, Cambridge, Mass. (OB-8)

Sara Schechner, a historian of science who curates the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments inside Harvard’s Science Center, says that the scientific community will be poorer for the loss of the Wolbach’s concentrated collection and specialized librarians. In a library like the Wolbach, she says, “a researcher can come in and say I’m interested in X, Y, and Z, and the curator will point them to other things that they didn’t know were related to the original project.”

Libraries can sometimes focus on the past, says Peter K. G. Williams, who investigates astronomy research tools for the CfA and the American Astronomical Society. But the Wolbach and its librarians also have been “very forward looking about how they kept on fulfilling their mission into the future.”

Williams points to the Astrophysics Data System, a joint NASA–SAO digital library portal for researchers in astronomy and physics. “It’s our database for all the papers in the field. It’s just always been a leader in the field, and every astronomer uses it virtually every day,” he says. “It is based in the library and has grown up next to the library.”

Another contribution involving Wolbach librarians is the online Unified Astronomy Thesaurus—“basically a list of astronomy key words for organizing astronomical ideas,” says Williams. “The libraries of the future are going to be less and less about books, and I thought that the Wolbach was doing a good job of what a future library could be.”

Williams says that for many astrophysicists, “the Wolbach is an expression of our values. Closing a library becomes a statement about which values are important to us.”

Tables, chairs, and desks inside the Wolbach Library.
A look inside the library. After the library closes in March, the space could eventually support a lunchroom, Zoom rooms, or a reception area for visitors. Credit: Shelley Zatsky

Sian Prosser, a librarian at the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society, is also disappointed at the Wolbach’s closure. But if the library must close, “at the end of the day, the Harvard Library is one of the largest and best academic libraries in the world,” she says. “There are other places where glass plates have been discarded, and there have been harsh liquidations where collections have been made inaccessible.”

A major source of contention among library community members is the degree to which they were consulted in the decision to close. They say consultations would have allowed the community to highlight issues like the library’s role as an international leader, the importance of specialist librarians, and the value of consolidated collections. “There was no discussion,” Bouquin says. “That they could completely dismantle it like that is crazy to me.”

The SAO spokesperson says that the CfA leadership engaged with the “appropriate levels with Smithsonian and Harvard prior to making this budgetary decision.”

Following the announcement, the library saw a significant jump in requests, according to staff members who asked to remain anonymous to maintain their privacy. They say it might just be users submitting last-minute queries, or perhaps people want to show support for the institution.

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