Updates on Project PHAEDRA

Possibly a sketch by Trouvelot. Project PHAEDRA material. Harvard College Observatory notebook, 1880. Digital Image.

Possibly a sketch by Trouvelot. Project PHAEDRA material. Harvard College Observatory notebook, 1880. Digital Image.

Over the past few months, our library staff has been working hard to unravel the mysteries of Project PHAEDRA. Consisting of over 100 boxes recently rediscovered that contain Harvard College Observatory’s notebooks, journals, and observations from the nineteenth century, this material has the potential to reveal aspects of the Observatory’s past that have long since faded. So far, we have found guest lists of Annie Cannon’s observatory nights, correspondences from early directors, and a sketch of the sun likely drawn by E. L. Trouvelot during his stay at HCO. And these few discoveries come only from the few boxes that are still in the HCO Plate Stacks.

Earlier this week we traveled out to the Harvard Depository in order to survey the entire collection. Our goal was to briefly identify what was in each box and the general topics of the notebooks, so that we could begin to organize and categorize the data. This would have been a Herculean task, if not for the discovery of even more lost documents.

The monstrous collection that awaited us in Harvard Depository. Image by Daniel Guarracino, 2016.

The monstrous collection that awaited us in Harvard Depository. Image by Daniel Guarracino, 2016.

In a dusty drawer in the back of the Plate Stacks, we found a 1975 catalogue of the notebooks with exactly the information we wanted to record! From the cataloger’s notes, we have learned a little about the provenance of this collection, the many and decrepit New England depositories that have housed the material, and the reasons this collection might have faded from memory. The catalogue, really a lifesaving discovery, has launched our project ahead of schedule, and we are now preparing for the material’s digitization and indexing in ADS.

While we found gems of historical interest scattered throughout the notebooks, the bulk of information is short observations and data tables composed by the astronomers and computers here at HCO. With such repository of observational data, our goal is to invite scientists to decipher and interpret the data, so that the historical perspectives can enrich their current research. Likewise, we want historians to use correspondences, margin notes, and sketches in order to construct a more detailed and nuanced picture of nineteenth century astronomy.

Stay tuned for more info as we continue this trek into our past!

Alex McGrath

Archives Assistant at Wolbach Library
Alex is the Archival Assistant at Wolbach.