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Royal Astronomical Society Library

Library of the Week: 18th July: We feature the Royal Astronomical Society Library this week. Find out more in this brilliant post by Laura Dimmock – Jones (Assistant Librarian) about the history of the RAS (since its establishment in 1820!) and the Library and its amazing collections. Thank you to the RAS Library for taking part.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Library contains books, images, documents, paintings and instruments significant in the development of scientific thought in astronomy and geophysics and related disciplines. The RAS has been collecting books and manuscripts since its establishment over 200 years ago on the 10th March 1820 at its first Ordinary Meeting. It was originally conceived as the ‘Astronomical Society of London’. Sir William Herschel was the first titular President although he didn’t actually take the Chair at the meeting. The Royal Charter was signed by William IV on 7th March 1831 and the organisation has since been known as the Royal Astronomical Society with the reigning monarch as Patron. Founding Fellows like Francis Baily and Thomas Colby made notable and important donations to the Library of major astronomical works by astronomers such as Galileo and Lalande, and the RAS has been home to this unique and special collection ever since.

The main library at the Royal Astronomical Society.

The RAS has a number of functions including organising scientific meetings and events, and publishing international research in our journals. We also award medals and prizes and support education through grants and outreach activities. Our major publications are Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Geophysical Journal International and Astronomy and Geophysics. The Library forms one of the key areas of the Society’s work, and collecting, maintaining and making its unique resources accessible is an important function of the RAS.

The telescope is RAS No. 37, brass zenith telescope donated in 1857 by Anne Sheepshanks from her brother Richard Sheepshanks’ estate.

Today the Library has a collection of approximately 25,000 bound volumes, 60 current print journals and 3,000 discontinued titles. The archive includes over 1,000 boxes of papers and manuscripts from the 14th – 21st centuries including the working papers of William, John and Caroline Herschel. The collection also houses over 3,000 photographs, glass plates and lantern slides, notably Warren de la Rue’s exquisite images of the moon. The RAS also cares for 100 historical astronomical instruments, and a small collection of paintings.

Significantly the RAS has an extensive collection of early printed books and incunables including many of the key works in the history of astronomy; Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton to name a few. The Library team is working very hard to catalogue the collection as fully as possible to enable historians and bibliographers to gain a better understanding of it. Our Instagram account is a great place to see some of these works, not to mention some of the charming illustrations we find in them.

Tycho Brahe’s Great Brass Globe as illustrated in Astronimiae instauratae mechanica, a second edition of which is housed at the RAS Library.

Most of the library collection is kept at the RAS in Burlington House. Visitors can take in the beautiful library overlooking the courtyard. To find out more about visiting and using the library, see our website.

Current projects at the library include surveying, cataloguing and recording our large collection of discontinued journals; preparing for Open House in September; working with other collections to whom we loan items, for example the Herschel Museum in Bath, to name just some of the areas of our work. The day-to-day running of a significant collection housed in an historic building is extremely involved and includes pest management, conservation work, cleaning, cataloguing, purchasing books and accessioning journals.

2020 marked the bicentenary of the RAS and colleagues produced a fantastic history of both the RAS and astronomy and geophysics in this amazing interactive timeline The timeline features images of some of the stunning things we have in our collections. You can see more treasures from the RAS collections on our website

You can follow us on social media on Twitter @astro_librarian and on Instagram @astro_librarian. More contact information can be found on our website:

If you wish to visit the Library please contact the Librarian

Laura Dimmock – Jones   Assistant Librarian

You can explore the library’s collections on Discover and find further contact details on their Discover information page.

All images copyright of the Royal Astronomical Society reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

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