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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2007

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[Refereed article]

An Astronomy Library's Oral History Initiative: What an Observatory Librarian Is Doing to Preserve a Telescope's History

Joseph H. Murphy
General Science Librarian and User Education Coordinator
Kline Science Library
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Copyright 2007, Joseph H. Murphy. Used with permission.


Liz Bryson, Librarian for the Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope (CFHT), conducted an oral history project for the CFHT astronomical observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea. This article explores the processes, costs, experiences, and lessons of this oral history initiative and evaluates its importance to science and astronomy librarianship. The CFHT Oral History Initiative can serve as a model for other science librarians to record the histories of their institutions.

Perched atop Hawaii's tallest peak, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) explores the heavens with a 3.6-meter astronomical telescope that provides an "excellent image quality in both the visible and near infrared regions" (Starr et al 2000). Serving the information needs of this astronomical observatory and integral to its everyday functioning is Liz Bryson, CFHT Librarian. Bryson's belief that librarians "are dedicated to the preservation of recorded knowledge" inspired her to interview people involved in every stage of the telescope's development to record its history through an Oral History Initiative (OHI) (Bryson 2004a).

This case study outlines the processes, costs, and benefits of this oral history project. It is hoped that CFHT's example will inspire other librarians to conduct oral histories of their institutions, and serve as an example of what such projects may entail.

This is not the first attempt to record the oral history of an astronomical observatory, as evidenced in Ronald Doel's list of modern science oral history projects (Doel 2003). The CFHT OHI is the first with the goal of recording an observatory's history through audio-visual recordings. Bryson recognizes that CFHT "not only has a story to tell, but a unique one," and this project will preserve this story into perpetuity (Bryson 2004a).

In her introduction to Bryson's 2004-videotaped presentation, Terese Leber of the University of Hawaii's East-West Center Library voiced a concern common amongst librarians, "what's to become of our institutional history?" (Bryson 2004a). The CFHT OHI is one librarian's attempt to answer this concern by complementing and enriching the existing historical record.


The CFHT Corporation is a non-profit organization set amongst a dozen of the world's most important astronomical telescopes on the island of Hawaii's dormant volcano, Mauna Kea. Jointly operated by Canada's National Research Council, the University of Hawaii, and France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CFHT was founded in 1972. Mauna Kea is the highest point in the State of Hawaii at 13,796 feet (4,205 meters) above sea level, and is the tallest mountain mass on the planet: rising 32,000 ft (9,750 m) from the ocean floor (Encyclopedia Britannica 2005; Columbia Encyclopedia 2005).

Inspired by Peter Hingley's 2002 paper delivered at the Library and Information Services in Astronomy IV conference, Bryson spearheaded this ambitious project with the goal of "saving the oral history of CFHT ... for posterity" (CFHT Oral History Introduction). In his talk, Hingley makes clear the need to rectify what he identifies as a widespread paucity of plans to preserve the historical records of observatories and stresses the importance of applying "our best efforts to ensure that enough original documentation is preserved for a future historian to document our institutions" (Hingley 2002). In 2002, Michael Quinn Patton suggested including oral historiography with the preservation of primary documents to compensate for the limited situations, time periods, and people discussed in those materials (Patton 2002). Hingley's paper and CFHT's OHI serve as compelling inspirations for librarians everywhere to plan for the creation and preservation institutional histories.

The immediate need to record and preserve CFHT's history was reinforced when a January 2003 fire in Canberra, Australia destroyed the Mount Stromlo Observatory and erased its recorded history (Bryson 2003).

For History's Sake

CFHT and its researchers need to be studied for the science it produces to be properly understood. As Hingley states, "The processes by which current levels of knowledge were arrived at and the extraordinary activities and efforts these processes involved are just as much appropriate subjects for the historian" (Hingley 2002). This OHI also brings to our attention the aspects of astronomical research that are not usually recorded because they are so obvious that they go "without saying," and thus rarely appear in the historical record (Greene 1994).

"Qualitative findings are highly context and case dependent," as Patton describes, and this OHI adds a human context as a check and balance to the dry figures of CFHT's files and archives. Such preservation, "for posterity the personal or human side of history," as the University of Hawaii's Center for Oral History describes, "is often best expressed through the oral history interview" (How to do oral history 2000). As Weiner (1988) suggests, it can reveal how astronomy was/is actually conducted at this telescope in a manner impossible for the written record.

The shifting human interaction with the observatory's instrumentation is also being recorded. A video filmed by Winter Anderson (MPG viewable at the CFHT Library web page) captures how astronomers formerly sat in the prime focus cage manually viewing with the telescope before changes brought by telescope automation. With examples like these, the CFHT oral history initiative is making clear the dynamic nature of what Peter Calamai called "the intimate bond" between astronomers and telescopes" (Calamai 2006).

Behind the Interviews

Bryson, who has no formal training in astronomy, received a BS in Library Science and an MS in Education from Southern Connecticut State University before it offered an MLS degree. While working as a school librarian in Hawaii, a friend told her of a ten-hour/week job at CFHT. She began in 1980 as a librarian with part-time clerical duties, and became the full-time Librarian when CFHT moved to its current location in 1983. Bryson humorously recalls that when she began at CFHT, the library's catalog was written on index cards stored in a small recipe box.

Bryson first drew up a list of people to interview that included recommendations from former CFHT directors. Only two people declined an invitation to participate. Bryson had originally planned the scope of the OHI to focus on the 1980s and early 1990s. With the urging of co-workers, it instead began with CFHT's inception in 1972.

Interviewees then suggested others; as well as new paths to explore that enriched and deepened the project. The resources quickly became overwhelming. "If it can be done, it can be overdone," Bryson's husband has reminded her. The list was culled; and Bryson completed all interviews by 2006.

This OHI includes recorded interviews with about 30 key people intimately involved with the telescope. The interviewees: astronomers, administrators, technicians, researchers, engineers, and even Bryson herself as the institution's Librarian, represent many levels, roles, and duties within the organization. Each major stage of the telescope's history and development is represented. The interviews run an average of one-and-a-half to two hours, several stretching as long as three hours. Bryson supplied the interviewees with a questionnaire one week prior for background information, and they did not know what the questions would be until they arrived. Bryson was also kept blind to the questions both times she was interviewed.

As Denzin claims, through oral histories we "can hope to overcome the intrinsic bias that comes from single-methods, single-observer, and single-theory studies" (Patton citing Denzin). The many perspectives represented in the interviews allow for a greater understanding of the institution's history by bypassing the limited view of a solitary source, bringing together a wide variety of specializations within CFHT. In 2004, when about half of the interviews were completed, Bryson reported that, "no one has told me the same story," demonstrating the success of this approach (Bryson 2004a).

Behind the Telescope

Patton explains that oral histories often demand a great deal of energy be devoted towards establishing trust between the interviewer and subject (Patton 2002). Bryson had worked alongside most of the interviewees for many years, minimizing this stage of the process.

Bryson also developed a strategy for dealing with instances when interviewees began to show signs of fatigue. She kept them on their toes by throwing in unexpected questions. For example, she would inquire what they would ask God if they were to have dinner together. To which one astronomer replied without a second's hesitation, "What's with the apple?"

Often their first recorded interview, many of the participants were uncomfortable in front of the video camera. Bryson had a plan to help them loosen up and feel at ease. Instead of using the traditional "unrecorded pre-interview" technique, Bryson began each interview by discussing the interviewee's personal history (How to Do Oral History 2000). This autobiographical discussion usually lasted about 30 to 40 minutes and served the purpose of helping the interviewees relax and become comfortable prior to sharing their professional stories.

Not surprisingly, many interviewees became incredibly nostalgic during this personal section of the discussion that revealed much of the deep and moving human drama residing among the institution's foundation. Some interviewees told stories never before shared. Others, one the proud descendant of a Samurai, reflected upon their family's heritage. Even personal tragedies were told, bringing forth tears from all sides. These diverse interviews came together to create a uniquely human history of the telescope and the people who brought it to life.

Bryson noticed several interesting patterns emerge from these biographical discussions: many were an only child, they tended to be very inquisitive, and they expressed an interest in astronomy from a very young age. Doel cites the Sources for History of Modern Astrophysics (SHMA) project as having drawn very similar findings, "Many recalled feeling at an early age that they would take up astronomy as a career" (Doel 2003). Doel discusses oral histories from other scientific disciplines with dissimilar findings. The Survey Project in History of Geophysics revealed a pattern "quite unlike that in astronomy. Fewer geophysicists recalled an interest in science at an early age compared with their eventual astrophysical colleagues" (Doel 2003). This is an example of the information that can emerge from a widespread adoption of similar projects.

Lessons Learned

Bryson has learned much while bringing the OHI to life. She learned that preparation is everything when she unsuccessfully applied questions created for an astronomer to an interview with an optical technician. It became obvious that beyond a generic template, questions cannot be applied across fields.

Except for the final DVD product, Bryson did all of the editing on her own, teaching herself how to use editing software. Her skills as an interviewer improved as she gained experience. She learned to recognize and correct audio and visual problems by paying special attention to the placement of microphones, avoiding backgrounds that are either too busy or too plain, and how to dress and direct her subjects.

Bryson soon understood that it would be impossible to undertake every duty alone, and the importance of sharing project duties became apparent. This became important as Bryson was solely responsible for this project from start to finish in addition to her normal library duties.

Budget, the Costs of Oral History

The expenses associated with an oral history project can be intimidating to librarians already facing overextended budgets. CFHT's experiences give a good idea of what costs can be expected from an oral history project.

The CFHT OHI is funded entirely out of the Library budget. Equipment totaling approximately $2,500 represented the largest cost. The major equipment purchased for the project included a Sony digital video camera ($1,400), camera battery ($100), tripod, case, and wireless and zoom microphones. A few hundred dollars were spent on DVDs, audiotapes, and digital videocassettes. Total costs were lower than originally projected.

It was necessary for Bryson to be flown to both France and Canada to conduct interviews with CFHT's first two directors. The importance of interviewing people so central to the institution's history clearly justified such costs.

The cost of transcribing the interviews, important as primary sources, also rose during production. CFHT originally employed two individuals to transcribe the interviews but later decided to instead hire a professional transcribing service that worked from an uploaded MPEG file. Though more expensive, this change produced faster service.

Since Bryson had deeper experience and knowledge in this field than the transcribers, she occasionally had to clear up things missed or confused jargon. Two or three rewrites were often necessary, and interpreting the French tapes proved problematic. A copy of the transcript was also shared with the interviewee as a final check for accuracy.

Beyond funding requirements, moral and personal support is also necessary for successful oral history projects. Bryson received wide support and appreciation during this undertaking from all at CFHT. Many employees enjoyed the idea of their contributions and stories being preserved in the historical record. The clear benefits from such projects can also ease the solicitation of needed funds. CFHT directors' enthusiasm for the project greatly increased when they previewed several completed interviews and transcripts. These finished products demonstrated to the directors how the project could add value to and ensure the immortality of the institution.

Other Benefits

Bryson has further plans for this project; including collaborating with local middle school teachers in developing a curriculum to help students learn about Mauna Kea. Published material would also to help create an accessible history of the observatory.

A few family members have requested copies of the taped interviews that they find valuable as recordings of family memories to be passed down to grandchildren or used in family history projects. Each of the participants' voices, contributions, and involvement in CFHT will now live forever in the historical record. Bryson says, "I have ensured the immortality of a lot of people."


CFHT maintains legal and physical possession of all recordings. The corporation is very liberal in granting editing privileges to interviewees. There has been at least one case when an interviewee wished to remove a segment of the recording in which he had made a less-than-complimentary statement about another employee. He later decided that the segment should remain in honor of maintaining historical context and integrity. The master copy of the interview is never altered, only the public copy, an online PDF transcript available on the CFHT Library web page. The CFHT library maintains master copies of DVD, VHS, and audiotapes, while interviewees receive a VHS and DVD copy of their interviews.

Accruing Historical Materials

While doing this project, Bryson was given "all kinds of wonderful gifts that I never knew existed," including small keepsakes and regalia from CFHT's history. Among the items of great import to the observatory's history, was footage from Institute for Astronomy's historical forum. This footage, recorded over thirty years ago, included original conversations regarding the inception of CFHT. These tapes had heretofore remained unknown except to the individual who had alerted Bryson to their existence, and may well have never resurfaced if the project had not sparked his memory.

Another tape given to Bryson was a recording of a former CFHT director calling Civil Defense to report witnessing Mauna Loa's volcanic eruption from the summit of Mauna Kea prior to even the volcanic center's knowledge of the event. It is because of these gifts that Bryson says, "everyday is like opening a jewelry box and finding a new gem that I didn't know existed."

Borrowing from Smith, there is an obligation to take these opportunities and add to the institution's collected history. If not now, when? CFHT is so lucky to have in its possession pieces of the Telescope's history, but such luck will dwindle with time.

These gifts also present a new burden, as they need to be properly preserved. Already fully taxed as CFHT's solo Librarian, Bryson cannot also become its full-time archivist. The tapes are being transcribed and preserved, but will the countless gifts and artifacts also be properly stored? So much of special import in institutional histories never makes it to the archives, so we must be proactive in collecting and preserving the full histories of our institutions.

Hingley suggests that the creation and maintenance of institutional archives with their concomitant costs is not the only option available. Placing materials with local repositories is another option, especially for institutions like CFHT that actively cultivate constructive relationships with the local community.

The Unsung Heroes of Astronomy

The OHI has also presented an opportunity to bring attention to some of the very important people in the field of astronomy who have not received the public recognition deserved for their contributions. Some of these astronomers are giants in their field; yet remain virtually unknown to the public. In this context, the CFHT OHI is also creating a great resource for those studying the astronomical community.

Bryson believes that the task of librarianship is one of dedicated stewardship and preservation. It is her hope that the CFHT OHI will inspire librarians to initiate similar projects. "To get hooked on this" idea of preserving the history of our institutions and record their stories, as have Librarians at the University of Hawaii's East-West Center who began an oral history of their library. Though these projects require great effort, "the rewards are mammoth," and your institution will appreciate that its librarians are ensuring its immortality.


This was written while attending the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii.

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