The U.S. Naval Observatory houses some of the world’s most cutting-edge scientific instruments, such as the Master Clock, an integrated network of a hundred atomic clocks that support the Global Positioning System. But tucked away in a corner on the top floor of the building is a far more historical (though no less worldly) attraction: a circular library with the best astronomical special collection in the United States.
The U.S. Navy has been amassing the horde since 1830, and now boasts an impressive collection of sky catalogs, astrophysical journals, and the works of luminaries like Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, and Newton.
The library also abounds with delightful notes from an architectural and design perspective. Visitors may first fixate on the quirky little indoor fountain, with its quiet gurgle of water and collection of shiny pennies. Then up to the wrought-iron spiral staircases that provide easy access to the second story stacks. Finally, walking round the disk-shaped book shrine transports the imagination to an observatory’s circular telescope room.
Smithsonian Curator of Astronomy Dr. David H. DeVorkin describes the observatory library as “far more than a collection of books. It is a well-tuned engine for research central to the conduct of astronomy. It is not a passive repository without a mind, heart and soul of its own.”
What Devorkin alludes to is that the Observatory library contains records going back hundreds of years that are tremendously helpful to modern astronomers, but were compiled by skygazers who undertook the work without any reward. Astronomical records—of, say, what the moon looked like last night—aren’t very useful in the present day, but a hundred years in the future, the aggregate of these observations could be invaluable.
As Canadian astronomer J. S. Plaskett eulogized in 1911, “All honor to the astronomers of the past, who spent their lives in making observations of which they themselves could not hope to reap any fruit, and all honor to the astronomers of the present, who are unselfishly collecting data which only a future generation can use.” It is this historic record, the blood sweat and tears of long-dead astronomical alumni, that lives on at the Naval Observatory Library.
Update April 2018: All tours are suspended indefinitely.
Know Before You Go
You can book tours through the Naval Observatory website. Fittingly, all tour times are at night when the stars are out.