Poster Open Access

New audiences for old books: using astronomy archives in school outreach activities

Prosser, Sian

The Royal Astronomical Society exists to advance, and to record the history of, our understanding of astronomy and geophysics. It does so through various activities, including maintaining a library and archive to preserve its collections and make them accessible to a widening audience, supporting research, education and outreach work.This poster will outline the role played by the library and archive in helping the Society to fulfill its purpose of promoting the study of astronomy. It will also explain the practicalities of engaging in outreach activities with limited staff resources. 

Since 1820 the Royal Astronomical Society has developed a unique collection of books and manuscripts created or donated by its members. The library aims to widen access to its distinctive collections, bringing in new audiences. In particular, the librarian has worked with the outreach officer to devise a school workshop that provides access to primary sources in the RAS archive. 

The workshop focuses on Caroline Herschel, who assisted her brother William in his observations, and discovered eight comets. These are recorded in Caroline’s observation notebooks in the RAS archive. Aimed at nine- and ten-year-old children, the visit falls into three parts, each lasting 30 minutes. The outreach officer takes the students on a tour of the solar system, showing how comets are formed. The students have an audience with an actor playing the role of Caroline Herschel who narrates her journey from domestic drudge to the first woman to receive a salary for scientific work. Finally, the children decipher the handwriting in Caroline’s notebooks in the reading room as they read accounts of her discoveries and see her sketches. The children then sketch comets inspired by historical photographs of Halley’s comet. 

Since 2015 the Society has hosted hundreds of children, encouraging a passion for astronomy and geophysics using resources that students can’t easily access in the classroom.

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