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Harvard Center for Astrophysics to Close Wolbach Library Due to ‘Financial Considerations’

The John G. Wolbach Library is located within the Center for Astrophysics at 60 Garden Street. The library is set to close on Friday due to "financial considerations."
The John G. Wolbach Library is located within the Center for Astrophysics at 60 Garden Street. The library is set to close on Friday due to "financial considerations." By Assma Alrefai
By Neeraja S. Kumar and Annabel M. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

The John G. Wolbach Library — which carries one of the world’s largest astronomical collections — will shutter its doors on Friday, in a move that was “driven primarily by financial considerations,” according to an email from Harvard Center for Astrophysics Director Lisa J. Kewley.

The Wolbach Library houses both the Harvard College Observatory and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory collections. The “core operations” of the library will be fully integrated into Harvard Library after its closure.

The decision was made by Kewley and announced in an email to Harvard CfA affiliates on Jan. 23. Kewley wrote that the center was under financial pressure following reductions to the SAO’s budget and a decision to “refocus” HCO funds.

“To minimize the impact on CfA science, technology development, and telescope operations, we need to reduce positions where there can be increased efficiencies or broader institutional support from Harvard or Smithsonian,” Kewley added.

Jesse Han, a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s astronomy department, stated that the CfA’s budget crisis was not communicated to affiliates prior to the sudden decision to shut down the Wolbach Library.

“That was certainly a shock,” Han said.

The closure also meant that five library staff members lost their jobs, according to Kewley’s email.

“We want to express our deep gratitude to the library staff for their exemplary support to the CfA community over the years,” wrote Kewley. “SAO and HCO HR staff are providing support to them during this challenging time.”

Peter K.G. Williams, an innovation scientist at the CfA, said that the loss of the librarians at the Wolbach and the expertise they provided is “the worst part.”

“They’re good colleagues to work with,” he said.

Williams added that the library’s legacy as a world-renowned astronomy library will live on, but noted that “a lot of the reason for that is the people that are there, and we will be losing them.”

Jasmine Gill, a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s astronomy department, said they are “really going to miss our librarians.”

“Our librarians really brought the community together, and they hosted a lot of community events as well,” Gill added. “So that was kind of really a hard kind of thing to accept.”

The John G. Wolbach Library carries one of the world's largest astronomical collections.
The John G. Wolbach Library carries one of the world's largest astronomical collections. By Assma Alrefai

Kewley stated in her email that the decision was made “after consultation at the executive levels at SAO and HCO.” Faculty members and professors from the CfA were not involved in the decision-making process of the library’s closure.

Harvard spokesperson Alixandra Nozillo wrote in an email to The Crimson that “work is being done now with Harvard Library for full integration.”

Some professors said that resources from the library were often found in online libraries, through Harvard’s astrophysics data system or NASA’s SciX, or would be easy to access through the interlibrary loan service.

Astronomy professor Charlie Conroy wrote in an emailed statement that “all of the resources that astronomers use in their day-to-day work are available online.”

However, the physical closure of the Wolbach has left CfA students, staff, and faculty members with a feeling of emotional loss.

Astronomy professor Abraham “Avi” Loeb wrote in a statement that viewed the library’s closure to be “a sad moment.”

“Over the years, I developed an emotional connection to physical books,” Loeb wrote.

In addition to providing books for classes and research purposes, Han said that the library was “an integral part of the day to day life” for students, from hosting socials and providing a place to study, to displaying the history of female astronomers.

“On all aspects that you can think of, I think it's a terrible loss,” Han said.

The CfA declined to comment on criticisms of its decision to close the library.

In Kewley’s email, she described that the integration of the Wolbach into the Harvard library would begin in January “with full integration, reallocation and redesign of space expected to take up to a year.”

Gill, the Ph.D. student, said that it is “really hard to say goodbye to certain traditions.”

“One just hopes that some part of that tradition is still kept alive,” Gill added.

—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar can be reached at neeraja.kumar@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Annabel M. Yu can be reached at annabel.yu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @annabelmyu.

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