Perspectives on Data Management, Stewardship, and Preserving Astronomical Artifacts

As members of the astronomy community, it’s critical for us to be good stewards of historical and modern data, instruments, and records, ensuring that these materials are preserved for the future and made available to those who need them. How can we achieve this goal? This is the topic of the Library and Information Services in Astronomy (LISA) conference series, which brings together an international group of astronomers and librarians.

The idea for LISA conferences came about at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union, at which Brenda Corbin, the librarian at the United States Naval Observatory, proposed the idea of holding an international meeting of astronomy librarians. Six years later, the first LISA conference was held in 1988 in Washington, DC. Though the tools and data products astronomers routinely use have changed since the first conference, the goals remain the same: preserve our astronomical artifacts, be good scientific citizens, and share our work with the world.

LISA IX, hosted virtually by the Royal Astronomical Society in June 2021, tackled six main themes. The 36 articles that made up the proceedings are available in a special collection of the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society. You can read a brief summary of each article below — and be sure to check out the full articles to learn more!

Astronomical Heritage

screenshot of the star notes interface

A screenshot of the Star Notes interface on the Zooniverse platform. Volunteers can help match notebook entries to photographic plates. Click to enlarge. [Carver et al. 2022]

Astronomical heritage refers to the physical artifacts of the history of astronomy: documents, photographic plates, instruments, and so on. How can we protect these delicate artifacts? Getting a head start is important, say Maria Rosalia Carotenuto and collaborators, since preventative conservation of astronomical artifacts now can lessen the need for more invasive conservation efforts in the future. Conservation efforts led to a collaboration between the AAS and the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, explain Julie Steffen and Sharon Hunt, to create and administer archival collections, including the creation of and Archive Fellowship position for a graduate student. Nico Carver and collaborators describe their efforts to preserve handwritten notebooks from the Harvard College Observatory and link them to the 500,000 glass plate photographs in the archive. Marco Di Bella and Aurora Modica report on the preservation of glass plate negatives at the University of Palermo, Italy. Preserving these artifacts can have scientific benefits, too: Elizabeth Griffin explains how digitizing the millions of existing photographs of the night sky taken in the 19th and 20th centuries can help reveal slow variability of astronomical objects inaccessible to modern astronomical methods.

photograph of a stage set up for a play

Desideribus is a play describing the life of Angelo Secchi, and Italian astronomer who was a leader in the field of spectroscopy and among the first to believe that the Sun is a star. Click to enlarge. [Gargano et al. 2022]

But protecting physical artifacts isn’t the only way to preserve our astronomical heritage — sharing the fruits of research efforts is another important tool. Mauro Gargano and team use informal science communication through exhibits and theatrical performances to help highlight the human aspect of the rich history of astronomy in Italy. Francesca Brunetti details a decade of activities at the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory Library that aim to transfer knowledge from researchers to society. Valeria Zanini and team share the trials and successes they encountered when creating an online repository to help preserve Italy’s astronomical heritage.


graphic depicting the impact of data set inclusion

An example of how including data sets impacts citation rates and other factors. Click to enlarge. [Cortés-Rodríguez et al. 2022]

The LISA IX attendees also considered methods of weighing the impact of publishing and preservation policies. Patricio Cortés-Rodríguez and team analyzed the growth of open-access data sets and their impact on the citation rates of the articles that include them. Nishtha Anilkumar and collaborators explore the impact of social media visibility on the scientific impact of published articles from three institutions. Eva Isaksson and Riku Hakulinen investigate whether the well-established Astrophysics Data System offers metrics that are as useful — and responsible — as possible. Giovanna Caprio and coauthors report on the effects of creating an institutional repository for informally published or “grey” literature like documentation of methodologies or technical handbooks. Beatriz Juárez Santamaría and María Elena Jiménez Fragozo discuss the results of their survey of publishing preferences of researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Open Access

The question of open access considers best practices for sharing the results of astronomical research widely. Antonella Gasperini and collaborators describe the issues they encountered when creating an institutional open-access repository for scientific data at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy. Greg Schwarz gives the AAS perspective on the matter of uncurated astronomical data. Daina Bouquin and coauthors detail the pilot study of a science literacy and outreach project that seeks to introduce ground stations capable of communicating with small satellites into public libraries. Nagaraj Mulukunte Narayana and M.K. Bhandi survey researchers in Bengaluru, India, to quantify the usage and impact of the arXiv physics preprint server.

Open Science and Tools, Techniques, and Skills

screenshot of the app inventor interface

An example of the App Inventor interface, which does not require any previous coding knowledge. Click to enlarge. [Kaddipujar et al. 2022]

What tools do we have to make science more open and accessible? Two groups discuss the Unified Astronomy Thesaurus, a tool implemented by AAS journals in 2019 to connect astronomical concepts across time when the accepted terminology has changed: Katie Frey shares updates and Alberto Accomazzi and collaborators discuss how the community can work together to improve this resource. András Holl presents a case study of the Information Bulletin on Variable Stars, a small data journal that was active from 1961 to 2019. Manjunath Kaddipujar and coauthors explore how library professionals can use App Inventor, a code-free development tool, to create apps for their library users.

Research Data Management and Software

What’s the best way to handle the mountain of data astronomers generate? How do we manage it, share it, and ensure that the data and software products used in research are given proper credit?

schematic showing where the astrophysics data system gets its content

This diagram illustrates where the Astrophysics Data System gets its data. Click to enlarge. [Donna M. Thompson and The ADS Team 2022]

A discussion of data and software citation wouldn’t be complete without talking about the Astrophysics Data System (ADS). Donna Thompson and the ADS team give an overview of the sources included by ADS, and Carolyn Grant and the ADS team describe some of the new features and the best ways to use them. Alberto Accomazzi and collaborators report on efforts to expand the content cited by ADS from research papers to software, data sets, and other resources.

Another prominent issue pertains to the assignment of Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) to research tools beyond publications, like software and data products. Gilles Landais and collaborators discuss the usage of (DOIs), focusing on their role in the VizieR astronomical catalog service, and Glenda Coetzer and collaborators describe their pilot project to assign DOIs to data products from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.

When data and software are made available, are they cited? Daina Bouquin and team perform a case study of how software is — or is not — cited in astronomy, while Gretchen Stahlman shares results of a study on the accessibility of data referenced in published articles. And as our data policies change, institutions must adapt; Mark Allen and team explain the challenges faced by astrophysics and accelerator particle physics facilities regarding meeting open science standards, and Evelyne Son and coauthors report on changes to the Strasbourg astronomical Data Center (CDS) and subsequent changes to the skill sets of the CDS data stewards. Grégory Mantelet and coauthors report on their efforts to convert articles from all scientific publishers to the same format. Francesca Martines and Cristina Knapic give a librarian’s perspective on a complete model for data management at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy.

The Future of Librarianship

Where are we headed next? Joy Painter looks to the past and the future by working to preserve historical data from the esteemed Palomar Observatory while engaging with the challenges of managing modern data from the Zwicky Transient Facility. Lydia Fletcher presents lessons learned from managing the University of Texas at Austin J.M. Péridier Library, including a dramatic re-imagining of the physical library space that led to greater accessibility. Hilary Hargis and collaborators report on the importance of making management decisions with a world view and increasing cross-institutional collaboration. And Hemant Kumar Sahu presents an investigation into the usage of electronic materials at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics library in Pune, India.

Feeling inspired to share your insights and projects in astronomical librarianship? LISA conferences typically happen every three years, so you have plenty of time to prepare for LISA X! In the meantime, you can read the full proceedings of LISA IX in a special collection of the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society.