Paging Through the Past

On and off over the years I have been the overseeing editor for the Rambling Through the Skies column, currently written by Griffith Observatory's E. C. Krupp. Before him, the column was written by George Lovi.

My general tasks as an editor include fact-checking the text and gathering illustrations. Working with Krupp is great because he usually provides more than enough pictures. But sometimes I go after my own from photo agencies who have a supply of stills from Lost in Space and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Dealing with a photo agency is usually easier than working directly with a movie studio.

Bayer's Taurus
Johann Bayer's Uranometria atlas of 1603.
Sky & Telescope illustration
Back when I edited Lovi, back before everything was on the Internet, most illustrations came from old star atlases. We have reproductions of a few in our files, but every now and then we'd have to obtain a photograph from a library. I still remember about 17 years ago when I needed an illustration of a page from Johann Bayer's Uranometria star atlas from 1603. Turns out that the library system of Harvard University has a copy of the book and for a fee they will photograph it and allow reproduction.

So one afternoon I took the bus to Harvard and went into Houghton Library to see about arranging a photograph of the page. It was an experience. I filled out an index card with my information to be allowed into the reading room. Upon entry, I went to the card catalog (remember those, old timers?!) and found the entry for the Bayer atlas (the edition was from 1608, if I remember correctly). I took the information to the librarian and he disappeared. A few minutes later, he came back with the book. He explained that I could take it to one of the tables in the reading room. "Really?" I thought, "I'm allowed to touch it?!" It was an odd realization that I could just pick up and page through a book nearly 400 years old. I wondered who else had looked at it.

I haven't needed to go to Houghton Library for years. Given that some guy was convicted of cutting pages out of historic atlases, I hope that they have a security guard or two wandering among the tables keeping an eye on people. Nowadays, going to the library isn't necessary, because libraries are online, along with much of their collections. For a soon-to-be-published column by Krupp, I found that the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology has scanned many old star atlases. If you've never had the pleasure of paging through an old star atlas, now's your chance.