April 19, 2018

Libraries Across America To Celebrate Solar Eclipse on August 21

On Monday, August 21, all eyes—or at least, all those with adequate protection—will be on the first total solar eclipse to cross the country from ocean to ocean since 1918. The path of totality will cross the entire United States from west to east starting at 10:15 a.m. PDT in Pacific Palisades, OR (west of Salem) and ending at 2:48 p.m. EDT in Bulls Bay, SC (north of Charleston). More than 1,000 libraries will hold viewing parties with safe viewing glasses during the event, and imaginative eclipse-themed programs have been happening all summer from Alaska to Maine.

Many of the coast-to-coast viewing parties were made possible by donations of more than two million safety glasses through an outreach program initiated by the Space Science Institute (SSI) and funded by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a nonprofit corporation focused on science research, education, and outreach. SSI’s National Center for Interactive Learning provides STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programming and training to public libraries nationwide through its Science-Technology Activities and Resources Library Education Network (STAR_Net). This has included hands-on large and small traveling exhibits, resources, and training for library staff.

This summer, thanks to STAR_Net, with additional support from Google, the National Science Foundation, the Research Corporation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), library organizations across the country received glasses to give to patrons and an information booklet that includes times and locations for eclipse viewing events, safe viewing techniques, and suggestions for programming. Glasses went out to some 7,000 locations, including library branches, bookmobiles, tribal libraries, library consortia, and state libraries in all 50 states.

In addition, 75 U.S. public libraries were selected in May to receive resources, training, and support through NASA@My Library, a STEM education initiative offered by the National Center for Interactive Learning (NCIL) at SSI with support from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office, the Pacific Science Center, Cornerstones of Science, and the Education Development Center. The selected libraries received two NASA STEM Facilitation Kits, a preloaded tablet, inclusion in a two-day NASA workshop in Denver plus travel costs, training webinars, and a $500 programming grant.


The moon will pass directly in front of the sun within the 70 mile–wide path of totality, turning the day to twilight for a few minutes. Even outside that area, most of the country will see the sun obscured by at least 75 percent—but not with naked eyes. Looking directly at the sun, even when it’s partially covered, can cause serious eye damage, and only special purpose solar filters or eclipse glasses from vendors approved by the American Astronomical Society provide the proper protection.

But even with SSI’s generosity, many libraries ran out of glasses by early August.

Others are hanging onto their glasses until the day of the eclipse, although that hasn’t stopped patrons from calling to inquire about their availability—some libraries across the path of totality have been fielding hundreds of calls a day. Some libraries gave away a select number ahead of time, such as the Natrona County Library (NCL), WY, which used some of its 5,000 eclipse glasses as prizes for its “Look Up”–themed summer reading club, and began offering them to the general public a week before the eclipse date. “We’ll definitely be out by the end of the week,” said NCL marketing and public relations manager Nathan McGregor. “That’s part of the reason we only offered them as summer reading prizes at first.”

And at least a few libraries won’t be giving out any glasses due to recalls. Amazon announced August 12 that it was recalling thousands of pairs after it was unable to confirm that they came from recommended manufacturers, and libraries such as Decatur Public Library, IL, were forced to tell patrons that they would be unable to distribute the promised glasses.

Douglas County Public Library, NV, had already given out its supply of glasses before receiving a message from its vendor on August 17 informing library administration that it “had not received confirmation from the supplier of your order that they sourced the item from a recommended manufacturer. We recommend that you DO NOT use this product to view the sun or the eclipse.” The library advised residents to discard the glasses they had received; director Amy Dodson said, in a statement, “It is very disappointing to learn that the eclipse glasses are not guaranteed to be safe. Library patrons have been enthusiastic about our pre-eclipse giveaways. However, the safety of our patrons is of the highest importance.”

The American Astronomical Society is advising people to make sure their eclipse glasses are from reputable manufacturers and to look for the international safety standard number “ISO- 12312-2.”


Fortunately, patrons will have plenty to do even if they don’t have safety glasses. NASA has arranged for Solar System Ambassadors—a network of volunteer science outreach experts—and museum educators, park rangers, and science teachers to collaborate with their neighborhood libraries on events and lectures, and many more libraries have reached out to local experts to give talks and share their expertise.

Natrona County is directly in the path of totality and its county seat, Casper, will be hosting the Astrocon annual convention the weekend beforehand. The county is expecting anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 visitors for the solar event, and eclipse-centric programming at NCL began in the spring, when the library hosted two meetings for residents who wanted to host eclipse tourists legally, either by getting a camping permit application for their land or making their homes available through Airbnb.

The library’s eclipse lecture series kicked off in March, with a talk by Casper Planetarium educator Rod Kennedy. Come June, in addition to the summer reading program, NCL began hosting adult and tween book clubs focusing on astronomy-themed books.

But events really ramped up in August. On August 14, local astronomer Kevin Manning brought his own handmade telescope for outside viewing after a lecture on general astronomy. On August 16, NCL hosted astrophotographer Terry Mann, who discussed how to capture the eclipse using different techniques and equipment, and how to use a camera and tripod to take shots of the night sky, stars, and planets. The following night, NCL partnered with the Central Wyoming Astronomical Society for a Sun Party, featuring a Girl Scout who lectured on exoplanets and an eclipse chaser telling of his experience traveling the world to follow eclipses and planetary transits.

Saturday will see a Star Party at the library, with telescopes set up outside the library for passersby to use, and physicist David Gruber will give a presentation on “Astronomy in The Simpsons”—as it turns out, the show’s writers included many astronomical reference and even dedicated entire episodes to space and astronomy. Gruber will show excerpts from the series and talk about their astronomical content. “It’s just a fun way of teaching about astronomy,” McGregor told LJ.

Further north, the New Hampshire Astronomical Society has developed a “Library Loaner Scope” program where low-cost, quality telescopes can be checked out by library patrons in more than 70 New Hampshire libraries. The telescopes—Orion StarBlast 4.5 inch models—are easy to use, sturdy, and sit on a wooden base rather than a tripod.

Not all lectures will come from scientists: on the Sunday before the eclipse, the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, VA, will host storyteller Johnny Mac Chinn, a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe, to tell offer indigenous Tales as Old as the Sun. Traditional Patawomeck music will round out this event, which is suitable for all ages. For more kids-centric programs, see SLJ’s article “Totally! How Libraries Are Preparing for the Eclipse” as well as “Here Comes the Sun: Digital Resources for the Solar Eclipse.”

And for those who didn’t get glasses—or who had to give theirs back—many libraries have hosted make-your-own workshops to build eclipse viewers and pinhole cameras, including the Libbie Mill Library of Henrico County Public Libraries, VA, which is building a giant solar pinhole viewer, as well as hosting personal pinhole viewer making activities.

Other summerlong activities have included book clubs featuring titles that include Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, American Eclipse by David Baron, and of course Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon; and screenings of films such as Apollo 13, SpaceCamp, Capricorn One, Planet 51, In the Shadow of the Moon, Flight of the Navigator, Gravity, and Hidden Figures. In addition, many libraries have been contributing artwork to the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Art Quilt Project. More projects and ideas can be found at NASA’s Public Engagement site.

If you’re looking for some eclipse data straight from the government, FDLP (Federal Deposit Library Program) Academy has an informative slideshow overview, presented by Linda Zellmer, government information and data services librarian and liaison to physical & natural sciences and agriculture at Western Illinois University, Macomb (NASA also has a collection of eclipse resources).

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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