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Tapes and Papers: An Astronomical Heritage Archival Project of the American Astronomical Society and NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory

The AAS and NOIRLab are working together to preserve, organize, and make accessible two archival collections: the Abt Archive covering the ApJ editorship of Helmut Abt and the Astro Data Archive Legacy Tape Archive of exabyte tapes containing optical observing data.

Published onApr 27, 2022
Tapes and Papers: An Astronomical Heritage Archival Project of the American Astronomical Society and NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory


The American Astronomical Society (AAS) and NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) have combined staff expertise in data curation and archival practices to preserve, organize, and make accessible two archival collections to preserve important aspects of our astronomical heritage. An Archive Fellowship was created for a quarter-time graduate student to work on these two archives.

The Abt Archive is a physical collection of approximately 35,000 manuscript files related to The Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) during the editorship of Helmut A. Abt (NOAO, ret.), who served from 1971 through 1999 using a manual, paper-intensive review process. The correspondence found in this collection documents the processes by which manuscripts moved through the peer review process. These confidential manuscript files of referees’ reports, authors’ responses, and editors’ mediation of discussions illustrate for future historians of science how the editorial process shaped the resulting science found in ApJ articles.

The NOIRLab Astro Data Archive Legacy Tape Archive is a collection of optical astronomy data from astronomical observations taken with telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory between 1993 and 2004. These irreplaceable data are currently stored on 10,000 obsolete magnetic tapes. The migration of data files from these NOIRLab Community Science & Data Center exabyte tapes will result in approximately 4 million files in FITS file format.

Both collections are of considerable historical and scientific value to the astronomical community. Our archival project will ensure that this information will be available in perpetuity.

1 Introduction

The American Astronomical Society currently has three fellowship programs, the John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellowship, the AAS Media Fellowship, and the AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellowship. The latter two are intended for quarter-time graduate students to learn another aspect of the field of astronomy. In 2019, the AAS approached NOIRLab about combining support for one Archive Fellow to work on processing collection items in two important archives, the Abt Archive and the NOIRLab Astro Data Legacy Tape Archive. Because of the nature of both archives, a work plan could be developed for a student to work efficiently on both.

2 Abt Archive

Helmut Abt was editor of The Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) from 1971 through 1999, and his editorial office was based at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) at 950 N. Cherry Avenue in Tucson, Arizona. During that time the peer review process was conducted on paper, using physical mail carriers for many years and later through email. Abt’s predecessor, S. Chandrasekhar, did not maintain any records from his editorship, nor do most societies and publishers today, beyond a three-year window. The Abt Archive came into being because all submitted manuscripts and peer review records were printed out and kept in individual manuscript files for the duration of Abt’s editorship. These confidential manuscript files of referees’ reports, authors’ responses, and editors’ mediation of discussions illustrate for future historians of science how the editorial process shaped the resulting science found in ApJ articles.

The AAS Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) sent Jennifer Bartlett, chair of their Working Group for the Preservation of Astronomical Heritage (WGPAH), to Tucson in December 2017. Along with AAS Director of Publishing (Julie Steffen) and an archivist from the University of Arizona Libraries (Molly Stother-Maurer), Bartlett assessed the conditions of the archive’s materials and came up with some estimates of its scope in a report for HAD. This archive of some 35,000 manuscript records was then relocated from three commercial storage lockers in Tucson (Figure 1) to a rented vacant solar physics laboratory space in the basement of the NOAO building in 2018. The files were mostly intact but needed to be cataloged and transferred to archival-grade folders and boxes for easier access in their final archive destination (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Abt Archive boxes in one of three commercial storage lockers, Tucson, AZ, December 2017

Figure 2. Abt Archive manuscript folders

Because of inconsistent information about the confidentiality of the manuscript review reports during Abt’s editorship and on the advice of legal counsel, the AAS contacted all referees in its current database with the following message:

As a referee of record for the AAS journals, we are contacting you on the chance that you may have refereed papers for The Astrophysical Journal between 1971 and 2000. If you did not, feel free to disregard this message.

We are in the process of preparing the archive of materials from this period, the editorship of Helmut Abt, for deep storage.

Because confidentiality agreements and embargo periods in place at the time were not widely known or consistent throughout this period, we are contacting you to confirm that you allow your referee report(s) from this period to be archived for potential future use by historians starting 50 years after the refereed article’s publication date (e.g., at the earliest, 2021).

If we do not hear from you by October 31, 2018, we will assume that you agree to allow your reports to stay in the archive.

Approximately 200 respondents to this message indicated that they had no objection to sharing their reviews with historians; 29 respondents requested that their reviews remain confidential or be destroyed. However, only 10 of those 29 had been active referees during the critical period.

Around the time of the WGPAH/HAD evaluation, AAS member Virginia Trimble generously awarded the AAS with a grant for any efforts to conserve the physical Abt Archive. In addition to the AAS portion of the joint Archive Fellowship, this grant enabled AAS to hire an archival consultant, Sharon E. Hunt, to assist with archival documentation. The consultant developed policies and procedures in line with archival best practices, created a finding aid to the collection, and developed a database for items in the collection. Metadata tags for author(s), editors(s), referee(s), ADS bibcode, AAS MS#, bibliographic citation, and type of material were input for each item. Work for the AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellow would include logging every manuscript file and its contents in the database, re-filing them in archival-grade folders and boxes, as well as logging further metadata, such as the editorial team and publications board in place at the time of the manuscript’s peer review process.

3 NOIRLab’s Astro Data Archive Legacy Tape Archive

The Astro Data Legacy Tape Archive is a collection of approximately 10,000 exabyte tapes stored in a basement room of the NOIRLab (formerly NOAO) building at 950 N. Cherry Avenue, Tucson, Arizona. These magnetic tapes contain optical observing data from telescopes on Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo observatories between 1993 and 2004, when this type of data storage software and hardware was in common use. The data in the Astro Data Archive Legacy Tape Archive are especially interesting because of the use of the wide-field imaging Mosaic camera in around 50% of the observations. For this archive, the goal is to rescue the data from the obsolete tapes in the form of Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) files and rescue them soon enough so that some of the observers from the period who are still around could help with missing metadata and the like. Exabyte tapes have been obsolete for many years, and tape readers have been difficult to find. Some were ultimately found and installed in the Abt Archive space. The joint Archive Fellow would then be able to feed each tape into the tape reader and work on Abt Archive processing during file migration and be on hand to troubleshoot (Figure 3).

Rescuing this observational data has been the subject of other past initiatives, such as the “Save-the-bits” plan proposed some years ago by NOAO staff. A Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) grant (P.I. Steffen) including Gretchen Stahlman (Rutgers University) and Sean McManus (NOIRLab) was proposed in 2017 but not funded by CLIR. This proposal mapped out how the data migration might work in practical terms and assumed the participation of some of the local observers who originally collected the data, many now emeritus, to prepare the resulting FITS files for more general use and reuse. In a letter of support for the CLIR grant proposal, Tod Lauer of NOIRLab wrote: “The tape archive contains the original images used by two separate teams to discover the effects of ‘dark-energy’ on the expansion of the Universe (in short, by discovering supernova that were used as ‘standard candles’ to assess distances to galaxies over extremely large scales). These observations revolutionized modern cosmology and were recognized with three Nobel prizes in physics in 2011.”[1]

Figure 3. Tape Drives in the Astro Data Legacy Tape Archive

4 AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellowship

A joint AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellowship would offer a cost-effective way to rescue the data and materials in both archives. The idea was that a quarter-time graduate student might not be sustained by work on one or the other archive on its own but could gain knowledge of both by a workflow that combined efforts in each work shift. The Archive Fellowship position was created with generous support from Virginia Trimble for the Abt Archive portion and support from NOIRLab for work on the tape archive.

More information about the Abt Archive was obtained in several interviews with Helmut A. Abt, Editor of The Astrophysical Journal from 1971 until 1999. Editorial practices during his tenure are discussed in Abt (2019) [2], and a record of his remarkable life can be found in his recent autobiography, Abt (2021) [3].

The inaugural AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellow was Mel Rosen, who was recruited from the graduate student pool at Steward Observatory and worked from September 2019 until the pandemic shutdown of the NOIRLab building in March 2020. Several lessons were learned in the process that will be considered with the recruitment of the next Fellow. 1) It is important to hire someone at just the right point in their graduate program so they can work regular weekly hours without too much disruption in preparation for exams and the like. 2) There are understandably more technical challenges to reading the exabyte tapes than originally anticipated. With 10-20% of the process completed, there is still room for improvement in the tape reading and troubleshooting workflow. 3) It is helpful to have graduate students with at least command line skills for the work.

5 Future Plans

We are currently in the process of recruiting a new AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellow. The Fellow will continue the work on the Abt Archive and the NOIRLab Astro Data Archive Legacy Tape Archive once the NOIRLab building is reopened in 2022.

6 Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the following people for their contributions to the success of this joint AAS-NOIRLab Archive Fellowship: Helmut A. Abt, Jennifer Bartlett, Adam Bolton, Tod Lauer, Sean McManus, Mel Rose, Gretchen Stahlman, Molly Stother-Mauer, and Virginia Trimble.

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