Royal Astronomical Society


Dr Sian Prosser - Librarian and Archivist

Sian Prosser has been Archivist and Librarian at the Royal Astronomical Society since 2014. The Society has a specialist Library and Archive with a large collection of books, manuscripts, photos and instruments centered on astronomy and geophysics, dating as far back as the 15th Century.

Sian talks about German Astronomer Caroline Herschel and the planned digitization of her journals, artist inquiries for inspirational photographs of planets, and the RAS's place in the context of modern space exploration.


A brief article about the Beaufoy regulator clocks:

To learn more about books and objects associated with the Herschels and Henry Perigal see:

Nigel Calder archive:

Browse images from our collections on Science Photo Library:

Regulator clock Brief article about the Beaufoy clocks:

To learn more about books and objects associated with the Herschels and Henry Perigal see:

Browse images from our collections on Science Photo Library:

Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

hello and welcome to the max communications 2021 podcast a seed is a podcast where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by sharon prosser librarian and archivist for the royal astronomical society hi sean would you like to introduce yourself and talk about how you can be where you are today sure so i've been working at the royal astronomical society since 2014 now and my role is to manage the collections and ensure that they're catalogued that they're discoverable that they will be preserved for the long term and i help colleagues with outreach and engagement activities and yeah it's a really interesting role um i work with two library assistants so a very small team there's always you know every day is different really and i'm not an astronomer and i don't have a scientific background i came into library work from doing a phd on medieval manuscripts and i was lucky to train as a graduate trainee librarian in leeds university special collections and also leads university library customer services and yeah took it from there really started working as an academic support assistant spent a lot of time making you know instructional videos and experimenting with e-learning but always wanted to get back to working with special collections and whether job the royal astronomical society came up i just thought it sounds absolutely fascinating so how did you spend an average day has it changed since you joined in 2014 it's changed a lot in the past year for the last 11 months i and my colleagues have been working from home for 90 of the time but i suppose even sort of working with the collections virtually i'm still doing a lot of the same kinds of activities responding to inquiries helping people access images they might need for research or for publications using the archives to answer questions doing outreach activities like podcasts and live stream discussions and really it's been an opportunity to concentrate more on the digital side of preservation and and deal with some quite major cataloging backlogs although i can't really do a full job of cataloguing without having the book or the manuscript in hand so who uses your collection primarily because obviously the society has lots of members but do you get people from out with accessing their collections yes we do we have researchers from all over the world coming to research our manuscripts and our collections in general a lot of people who are experts in the history of astronomy but we have people from other disciplines as well in recent years i've had many inquiries from artists for example who are for example researching the history of photography and they're particularly interested in early pictures of the sun and moon and stars or you know people from like history or or researching the history of women in science in particular so they're looking at um evidence of when women were admitted to learned societies and participating in those networks in their own rights i suppose being admitted as honorary members which is what women were fobbed off with for most of the 19th century because of course there's been some quite important women in the history of astronomy yes so i can't talk about the archives of the royal astronomical society without mentioning the archives of the herschel family um that's the astronomer william herschel and his sister caroline herschel and his son john herschel and caroline herschel she worked with her brother who's most famous for discovering the planet uranus in 1781 but she was a really great astronomer in her own right she discovered several comments some people should say she definitely was the first person to discover five comments but it could be some other people say she discovered eight it depends on how you determine who was the first to discover a comet in a particular time zone and she also used um williams the telescope that william made to discover several nebulae we are very lucky to have the archives of the herschel family which were donated by their descendants to the royal astronomical society and caroline herschel's papers are such an important witness to the work that she did discovering clusters having her own observation program night after night we have her comment observation notebooks and we also have the work that she carried out on updating the catalogue of stars that had been established by the astronomer royal flamstead in the previous century and it's like the really meticulous work that she carried out like this which gained her recognition in the astronomical community not just for being her brother's dedicated assistant but for making her own contribution and she was recognized by being awarded the gold medal of the royal astronomical society in 1827. the next woman to be awarded the gold medal was vera rubin in the 1980s which is far too long again and she's also made a an honorary member of the royal astronomical society in 1835 in the same year as mary somerville and she mary somerville was a noted scientific writer um an excellent mathematician who was very much fated in um learning circles in the 19th century and had a lot of recognition for doing the work of taking laplace's mechanic celeste which was a very complex work building on the ideas of isaac newton and translating that not only into english but into a really a readable account of you know the mechanism of the heavens that was the title of the work and she gained widespread recognition for that and we have um hundreds of thousands of letters in our archive most of them are not that interesting there are things like dear sir i would like to renew my subscription or this sir i have uh i'm missing a copy of your journal monthly notices please send it forward with but we have a lovely letter from mary somerville where she says you know thank you for um you're unanimously electing me a non-remember and it's such an honor to be elected at the same time as caroline herschel who i admire so much so it's just nice to have that recognition between the two women there that's nice so do you have some more kind of esoteric items like um well telescopes or celestial you know those um mechanical machine things that demonstrate i've seen them do you have anything like that we do and there are certainly some very esoteric objects but we have telescopes we have caroline herschel's telescope which is being looked after by the science museum and they display it to to millions of people um on the other side of the scale we have some very one-of-kind instruments created by one-of-a-kind people like henry peregal who was an eccentric astronomer of the 19th century he belonged to about 100 learning societies he was what would be known then as a paradoxer and now as a crank because although he joined the ras and participated in the community he had some strange ideas like for example that the moon does not rotate so he actually built instruments to prove his theory and that he um he can't be left to the royal astronomical society and um although they are cannot be said to prove anything that actually corresponds to how the moon moves in time and space they are very beautiful he was not only um you know interesting science he was very good at using the lathe so he built the instruments entirely himself from scratch um yeah we do have a small collection of instruments so we would have collected them from the beginning mainly as a kind of lending collection um we've got a couple of regulator clocks that were given to the ras in the mid 19th century by beaufort and the regulator clock is a clock that's meant to be so precise that you can use it for timing astronomical measurements so it would be loaned to fellows and they could use it during their observations and we keep these clocks going me and my colleagues keep them wound up on them on a weekly basis we keep an eye on the performance of the clocks and we notice that one of them is running rather fast and i think that even when the clock was being loaned out fellows would complain about the slightly inaccurate nature of the clock so some things don't change it i think it i don't know if it's going to be possible to um to make it any more accurate than it is but um yeah these things are still running are you still adding to the question yes we are accepting donations for example of archives the most recent donation that's been fully catalogued is the nigel calder archive nigel called calder was a science writer and broadcaster who passed away in the last five years and his family kindly went through his papers and allowed us to take on some of the tv scripts and book manuscripts from the from the books that he published like violent universe that had a really big impact on the public understand understanding of science in the 70s and 80s so they are that's been catalogued and it's available to see on the archives hub and we're also collecting um contemporary journals and books as well but you do you do i mean i don't know what the line between sort of space x exploration and astronomical society is are you doing stuff with like um the mars um probe and things like that or is that with your remit well that's a really interesting question in terms of collecting yes there is a line that you could draw between say the royal astronomical society's collection policy and for example the british interplanetary society they are very much focused on space science and space research and that they have a a small member's library which is absolutely where you'd want to go for for example a complete backlog of all nasa publications so in the royal astronomical society our collection reflects the interests of our members we do have a lot of scientists and fellows who are involved in the space industry or who are academics who are involved in space missions including helping to build the mars landers and um and rovers etc so that is reflected in like the contemporary textbooks etc that we have but i would say that that is just one aspect we have the planetary astronomy we have some space science but also you have to really emphasize um you know stellar astronomy and we have to remember that a lot of our fellows are geophysicists as well and i tried to reflect that in the collection um that's people studying for example the the nature of the earth as a celestial body um it's it's atmosphere it's magnetosphere it's it's cool all of these aspects so do you think there are any particular challenges that come with managing the librarian archive at the royal astronomical society particularly well thinking back of my own experience i was very lucky to be taken on as somebody who's a generalist and who knows how to manage a range of collections from archives to early printed books but i have to say that i've picked up this astronomical knowledge um on the fly and i remember people asking me questions like can you give me some information about this particular style this observation and this is the right ascension and this is the declination of the object and it took me a while to realize that oh you're actually you're just giving me coordinates and this is a way of finding a celestial body in the sky it's just like there's a lot of uh in any kind of discipline once you're working with specialists there's a lot of knowledge that can be taken for granted so it was a bit of a learning curve to to to reach that but i think it was yeah i have been able to learn the astronomers and the fellows have been really great at sharing their knowledge i mean they're some of the best people working in um science outreach there is they're great there's a lot of people who are just fantastic at explaining things and without making you feel stupid for not getting it you know so that that's really helped i've really appreciated that so yeah there is a disciplinary challenge and also um looking at archives and how people rendered things in the past different notation different ways of naming things or or situating things in the sky and that's where the historians of astronomy have really helped with you know giving some context to a particular set of observations that i wouldn't be able to glean just from looking at it coming to it cold really um otherwise the challenges are similar to a lot of people those faced by people working in learned societies where it's a small organization you are you are working with a niche audience and you're you're constantly trying to promote the collection to the audience but also to the wider public um you get to you have to really understand the way you know the governance of the society and and how the library and the collections fit into that parent body and um yeah the preservation challenges are immense and very much a work in progress so what are your hopes for the future of the collection um you mentioned outreach are there are there people you want to um interest in your collection or are there any projects that you have on the horizon i'm very interested in expanding the audience we've done some great workshops with the outreach officer of the ras and um focusing on caroline herschel and comets and these are workshops that are aimed towards primary school children in particular but we can extend it to a range of different age groups and yeah i'd like to to take that further giving people a chance to interact with caroline herschel's observation notebooks but also learned about you know make connections between her comet observations and the science of the rosetta mission and um you know we've been working with spectrum drama yeah i'd like to do more of that but maybe also the um the experience of the pandemic has made us all really have to get to grips with the the virtual world and there have been positives in the last year of everyone getting used to using um digital platforms to reach as many people as possible and to be honest these have audiences outside of the m25 that we wanted to prioritize and give access to in the in the first place so i hope that that will continue and i'd like the library in the archives to be still part of the the digital offer of the society and digitization has to be a part of that all the digitization that has happened so far has been quite selective i would like to have a systematic program of digitization starting with the the herschel archives fantastic what is your favorite item from the collection what speaks to you personally it's so difficult to to single one object out but this is what i'll talk about today um it's basically a an early a very early printed book an edition of um a book called the sphere which was originally written i think in the 13th century by someone called johannes de sacrabosco or john of hollywood thought to be somebody from northern england it was basically a very concise description of how the earth is a sphere and how it um operates in the solar system there's also a basic explanation of how lunar and solar eclipses work so it became a very popular text for university students and it was copied over and over again in manuscript form until in the late 15th century when movable type was being developed in europe it became one of the first scientific books to be printed and distributed widely so we have one copy we'll have several copies of sacra bosco's sphere um because it was like the most popular astronomical book of all time if you think about how many centuries it was uh it was printed one of the books is so beautiful it it was printed by someone called um earhart rapdolt in venice and erhat ragdoll was a really innovative printer he invented the title page he experimented with multi-colored printing sometimes having like two or three colors on one page and yeah it's a book that's printed by him and it's so beautifully bound as well and you can see fragments of an earlier printed manuscript that have been used not print a printed text that have been used in the spine of the the the lining of the spine of the book because the spine is slightly damaged i'm absolutely fascinated by the way that um books are bound using recycled materials that are witnesses of earlier text so yeah it combines all of the things that i really love about the history of the book and the history of science you know printing early printers manuscript history binding history and yeah i love to show the book to members of the public because it it just dispels the myth that people in the middle ages thought that the earth was flat they did not and they were able to use first principles to work that out and there are nice diagrams nice wood cuts in the book showing somebody in a crow's nest on a boat and somebody in the prower boat and it's the person in the crow's nest that will see the coast first it's just very clearly explained even if you don't understand latin you can take something away from that book oh that does sound interesting yeah yeah and thank you so much for joining us today sean it's been really interesting hearing about your collection i'm especially excited about uh caroline herschel's maybe coming to a screen near you soon once you manage to get that digitized that sounds like a very worthwhile project to get getting on and have you got anything available online at the moment that people can have a look at any resources we have a collection of images on science photo library and i believe the link to that is on our website i'll i'll make sure that you have that so that is a as i said it's like collective digitized it's um selective digitization where we've taken things like the first edition of copernicus and the title page of that and then some of the key observations like william herschel's discovery of uranus but um yeah so so that's a nice way of browsing pictorially through what we have and yeah we also have a selection of videos focusing on what are known as the treasures of the royal astronomical society and you'll learn more about the herschels and books like sacra bosco's sphere in that series oh thank you so much sean for your time and your knowledge oh well thank you for for your interest and for asking about the about the live in the archive i'm looking forward to being back in there physically so it's nice to talk about it