Research Goes On: Post-Observatory Astronomy Resources in Helsinki


After the Helsinki Observatory was closed down in 2010, the resources available to astronomy underwent a radical change. One shelf kilometer of printed materials melted down to a small fraction by 2014. As for collection management and development, Helsinki University Library has replaced the former Department of Astronomy. Has the big change been to better or worse? The answer was sought with a variety of methods, including cited sources analysis for papers and theses, user surveys and an inventory of electronic resources. The results were compared to earlier ones from a 2004 assessment. The question posed by the author at the LISA VI conference regarding the trend of A&A citations after institutional merger was also revisited. All approaches give similar results: the changes seem to have given a boost to the productivity of Helsinki astronomers.


The merging of small astronomy libraries at universities into larger units has been one of the hot threads in past LISA conferences. (Akerholt 2010) anticipated that the change could offer new possibilities both for librarians and patrons. In the following, we will look at the changes that took place at University of Helsinki around 2010, and try to determine the likely outcome.

The Finnish university system was reorganized in 2010. One of the aims was to merge research units into larger ones to increase their efficiency. As a result, University of Helsinki Astronomy Department was merged in 2010 with the Department of Physics after 175 independent years, making the latter the largest departmental level unit at the university. At the same time, departmental library units ceased their independent existence. Helsinki Observatory Library was merged with the new Helsinki University Library. Everything was moved physically: astronomers, collections, and the astronomy librarian. Large parts of the collections were sent away. Later, Kumpula Campus Library cut 40% of its printed collections in 2012–2013.

Can the outcome from these mergers be measured in terms of collection use and research output? Was the change for better or worse? Are Helsinki astronomers getting the library services they need for doing their research?

Relocating Finnish Astronomical Heritage

The Helsinki University Astronomical Observatory started operation in 1834. Its collections were older than that, as it had inherited astronomy collections from the Turku Academy, founded by Queen Christina of Sweden in 1640. After Finland became a Grand Duchy of Russia, the university was moved to Helsinki. A big part of the Academy library collections were lost in the Great Fire of Turku in 1817. Astronomy collections were safe as the fire never reached Observatory Hill.

The Observatory suffered no major upheavals in its 175 years of operation (1834–2009) that followed. The library acquired quite extensive collections. The observatory was full of old instruments, manuscripts, separata, books, photographic plates, maps, exchange collections, reprints, staff publications, journals, ephemerides, and so on. When the emptying of the Observatory started in 2009, there were over 800 shelf meters of library and archival materials – and maybe more, if one counts boxes found in the attic.

Where did everything go? There were a few major outside takers. The oldest books (1600s–1830s) were deposited to the Finnish National Library, along with the ’separata’ collected by the astronomy professors from late 1600s on. The University of Helsinki Central Archives took manuscripts. Books and journals already held by the Kumpula Campus Library were sent to the National Repository library in Kuopio. Other takers included the Tuorla observatory of University of Turku (Russian language books), Finnish Horological Museum (books and journals on clocks) and the Department of Physics (reprints of department of astronomy publications). For a more detailed description of the process, see (Isaksson 2012).

The Observatory library was the last department library at the University of Helsinki to be merged. In 2009, there was barely enough space left at the Kumpula Campus Library to accommodate the collections arriving from the Observatory. A large part had to be put into more or less expensive remote storage as a temporary solution. The collection of exchange publications from other observatories (some 200 shelf meters) has been in remote storage for 4 years. At the time of writing, this collection is due to another relocation and faces a uncertain future.

Kumpula Campus Library only took the so-called active collections, and the older books (1830s–1940s) – not old enough for the Finnish National Library – were deposited at the Observatory, now renovated into a visitor centre and a museum. It is hoped that the presence of these books at the Observatory will give the visitors – mostly school children – the message that astronomers needed more than just instruments, but also literature to do their research.

Boxed journals at Kumpula Campus Library, November 2013.