The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
"If you feed them, they will come."
The Reference team gets more than 5000 – yes, thousand – inquiries per year. They come from all over the world and cover everything from soup to nuts. I’ll save the nuts for another post, and focus on the soup or, more specifically, tea and how refreshments are vital to a successful volunteer effort.
One of our perennial topics of interest is, Operation Moonwatch. Moonwatch was initiated in 1958 by Dr. Fred Whipple at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory during the International Geophysical Year (IGY).
Operation Moonwatch created an international network of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteer sky-watchers of both genders (women made up about a third of all observers) and from every walk-of-life. These citizen-scientists joined professional astronomers to track and report on satellites travelling through the night sky. Often we hear from old "Moonwatchers" or, increasingly, genealogists that have learned through family lore or old paperwork about a relative's participation in the project and are eager to learn more.
Recently I received an email from Greg Roberts of Johannesburg, South Africa, a former Moonwatcher who had been corresponding with some of his fellow observers. Greg wanted to track down details on several South African observation teams operating out of Johannesburg and Blomenfontein. Luckily we have great records documenting the Moonwatch program in Record Unit 255 where I could find what he was looking for.
The report from the Blomenfontein observation station, on Naval Hill near the old Lamont-Hussey Observatory, was detailed and complete. It also included photographs of the observational set-up and drawings diagramming the layout of the entire observation station. What I enjoyed best, though, were the detailed organizational lists. These provided names of volunteers, their occupations, tasks and responsibilities and descriptions of nightly activities.
As I read through the report's detailed description of the locality and how well-suited it was to the task, it became clear that the proximity of the telescopes to the canteen – and its' "pepping-up" the volunteers – made the whole arrangement "most satisfactory" for all involved.
That made me smile, but I don't think you'd see that sort of personal touch in reports covering a partnership like Moonwatch today. And that's too bad. I mean, what a great recruiting tool – a night out, under the stars with others who share a common interest and cake, too. Heck, I'm all over that!
For more information about Operation Moonwatch, check out, Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age by Patrick McCray. Dr. McCray made extensive use of Record Unit 255 for this book.
- Record Unit 255 - Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Moonwatch Division, Records, 1956-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives