A day in the life at the Royal Astronomical Society

Guest blog by Sian Prosser, Librarian and Archivist at Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London (Twitter: @astro_librarian)

The Royal Astronomical Society Library holds one of the most comprehensive collections of works on astronomy and geophysics, both ancient and modern, as well as a significant archive containing institutional records, and working papers by astronomers like William Herschel. Our users are mainly Fellows of the RAS, external researchers, and visitors from astronomical societies, schools, and college groups.

This morning a Fellow is bringing a group of summer school students to the library to look at textbooks used by students in medieval and early modern universities, such as the 1485 edition of De sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco, which was used by the Fellow to demonstrate that astronomy students were taught that the earth was spherical, not flat. One student asks about the presence of holes in one book, and learns that ‘bookworm’ is not just a figure of speech! Education and outreach are key activities of the RAS, and the Library is seeking to host more such visits in the future.

Once the group has left I have a chance to catch up with my colleague, Beth Gaskell, who works in the Library for one day per week, helping to keep the current journals up to date and carrying out invaluable work to maintain the historical journals collection. The rest of the week I am a ‘solo librarian’ and carry out a variety of tasks, from shelving to digital scanning. I deal with many enquiries from users all over the world, asking for information about astronomy and geophysics, or about the history of the Society and its members, which often require some archival research. The library can be a valuable resource for Fellows who are not affiliated to a HE institution.

The library is always acquiring new books in astronomy and geophysics. I’m not doing any cataloguing today, but do need to update the library website links to the online catalogue, as I’ve upgraded to an externally hosted version. I also need to spend some time looking after our collection of astronomical instruments, many of which are on loan and require the paperwork to be kept up to date, and others which are in house and need to be cared for properly.

At the moment I’m working with two Fellows, Dr AEL Davis and Dr JV Field, to put together a display of major works by Johannes Kepler. They are visiting this afternoon to look at the exhibition space and choose which pages the books will be opened at. This will be the last exhibition of the summer. After that, I’ll be putting together a different display every month to correspond with the themes of the public lectures.

The title page of De stella nova (1606) by Johannes Kepler

Although I’m a solo librarian most of the week, it’s not a solitary job, as I work closely with colleagues in events management, IT, education and outreach. I am also regularly in contact with fellow librarians, especially my neighbours in the other learned society libraries of Burlington House.

Originally published in the Geological Society’s Librarians e-newsletter in autumn 2015.

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