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Reach for the Skies! Library launches take-home telescope scheme

Westminster Reference Library’s pioneering scheme allows members to borrow a telescope

03 August, 2018 — By Pema Monaghan

Zsuzsanna Nemeth with Susie Hilmi: ‘Jupiter … It’s just beautiful’.


THE astronomer and physicist Sir Isaac Newton used a telescope to gaze out at the celestial wonders of the night from his home in what is now St Martin’s Street.

He was often joined by his old friend Edward Halley – who discovered Halley’s Comet in 1705 – at the town house, now Westminster Reference Library.

A few centuries later the library has set up a pioneering scheme allowing members to borrow high-quality telescopes for up to two weeks.

There are monthly lectures as part of the project and the library’s top balcony is also being opened up so that stargazers can stare up at wonders of the night sky through a super-powerful telescope. The library is the first in the country to loan out telescopes in this way.

Zsuzsanna Nemeth, librarian at the Westminster Reference Library, said she had been looking for ideas to create “an even more innovative service”.

She added: “Our aim is to empower people with reliable information. Libraries deal with people from any background and we are here to help and inspire.

“You can’t believe it, seeing Jupiter, the stars, the Moon. It’s just beautiful. I thought, ‘we must do it’. I wanted adults especially to have that experience.”

Zsuzsanna got the idea after reading an article about libraries in the United States that were running similar programmes under the management of Marc Stowbridge, of Astronomers Without Borders and the New Hampshire Astronomical Society.

It intrigued Zsuzsanna but she felt she had to experience stargazing herself in order to argue coherently for its importance. So she spent a night with the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers in Regent’s Park.

With her colleague Susie Hilmi, she began applying for funding and, with help from Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society, they were funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

One of the telescopes that can be borrowed from the library

The programme, Reach for the Skies, allows adult members to take home a Maksutov- Cassegrain portable telescope, accompanied with instructions, a guide to what may been seen in the London night skies, a red-light torch, and small compass to direct their gaze.

Members of the library can borrow high-quality portable telescopes for two-week periods, just as they would borrow a book.

There are monthly lectures on how to use a telescope and Astronomy Month in September is packed with talks such as a lecture on Women in Astronomy by Dr Helen Klus on September 24, and many more.

Zsuzsanna added: “The monthly astronomy lectures are always fully booked, and at one point we had a waiting list for the telescopes, as so many people wanted to borrow them.”

The library is also opening up its top balcony so that stargazers can look through their huge Celestron Nexstar telescope. The Celestron is equipped with a solar flare, meaning that, unlike the portable telescopes, viewers can look right into the Sun.

Libraries have historic links with astronomical studies. Medieval scholars were also interested in the study of the cosmos, leading them to adopt and adapt for their own uses technologies such as the astrolabe, an Islamic device to measure the positions of celestial bodies.

l The Westminster Reference Library is free to join. To do so visit them at 35 St Martin’s Street, WC2H 7HP. For more information about borrowing a telescope, see borrow-telescope


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