“Visions of the Universe” Hits the Road and NASA Lands in Libraries
Matt Fredericks | July 15, 2009
Librarians are boldly going where no library has gone before in 2009. So said Frank Summers, astrophysicist and educator with the Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach (STScl), waking up a roomful of librarians with his excitement on a Sunday morning at the 2009 ALA Annual Conference. If you haven’t heard, 2009 has been declared the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009)—commemorating the 400th year of Galileo’s first observations through a telescope in 1609. To celebrate the founding of modern astronomy, NASA is rolling out a multimedia educational road show of galactic proportions, “Visions of the Universe: Four Centuries of Discovery.” The travelling exhibit, developed by the Space Telescope Science Institute and the ALA Public Programs Office, also has a host of incredible websites and educational materials.
Cue up the Beatles, “Across the Universe.” The vision: to help citizens of the world to rediscover their place in the universe though the daytime and nighttime skies and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery. “We don’t look at the sky anymore,” Summers stated matter-of-factly. “We don’t navigate by it anymore like sailors did for centuries—we have GPS.” But charged with an educational outreach mission by NASA, Summers and IYA2009 take this not as a fact to lament but a call to action.
The idea: to take the viewer on an intellectual and visual journey, comparing deftly wrought drawings of Galileo with the first moon photographs of the 1840s or the Hubble telescope images of today. “This project is not about people or technology, but seeing the actual discoveries that changed our views of the universe,” emphasizes Summers. The mandate: to reach the underserved who have limited access to NASA resources—from small towns to big cities. Desiring to reach more than a select crew of stargazers on this educational quest, NASA went beyond its familiar terrain of planetariums, enlisting libraries by way of a new partnership with ALA’s Public Programs Office.
What the streetlights might blot out will roll in to forty libraries that received grants. Twelve easy-to-put-together panels contain the sun, moon, Mars, Saturn, comets, stars, star birth, stellar explosions, and galaxies. Complimenting the sturdy, cost-effective panels that travel light and seemingly contain the universe, Summers marveled at the shoestring ingenuity of librarians—so rarely afforded rocket science budgets. “This would have cost NASA 150,000 dollars.” The same poster images can be accessed online as high-quality PDFs and downloaded by anyone.
Impact surveys indicate that thus far “Visions of the Universe” has had great success, attracting new patrons to the library, impressing local government and businesses, and sparking new partnerships with educators. Not to mention inspiring countless science-inspired exploits, from star parties with inflatable planetariums to homemade spectroscopes and Star Wars#8211;like dioramas. People expect art and literature at the library. But science from NASA is shaking things up. Small revolutions arrive by keeping an ear to people’s needs. Indeed, Susan Brandehoff of ALA Public Programs Office explained that their 2007 survey of libraries about travelling exhibits indicated that 91 percent wanted more science exhibits, 77 percent wanted more technology exhibits, and everyone wanted more programming materials. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when half the town of Snyder, Oklahoma (175 of 345 total population), showed up for the exhibit opening.
NASA doesn’t need to send another man to the moon to grab your attention—just a man to your town (preferably Frank Summers) armed the “Visions of the Universe” exhibit. Anyone in the room who furiously scratched out the dozen or more URLs of top-notch science and astronomy Web sites he kept calling out can testify to Summer’s irrepressible energy. “I love giving stuff away for free!” he said. And for that, the scientist just might be an honorary librarian. As he concluded, “You have no excuse—the universe is yours to discover—and there’s no better place to discover than in the library!”
Matt Fredericks is student in the School of Library and Information Science at Wayne State University.