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Katie Birkwood

The archive of astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle: an access-orientated processing project at St John's College Cambridge
cehic 07/05/2009

Katie Birkwood
Katie Birkwood

In 2001 St John's College Library received a large donation of papers, books and artefacts from the family of a former College Fellow, the astronomer and physicist Sir Fred Hoyle FRS (1915-2001). The size of the donation was such (c. 150 boxes of papers) that it was not possible for existing Library staff to sort or catalogue it. Funding for a project to catalogue these papers was obtained from the UK National Lottery Heritage Lottery Fund under a scheme to improve public access to national 'heritage', including cultural heritage. This paper will examine the access-orientated form a project must take in order to be eligible for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It will describe the range of outreach events and initiatives - including public open days, school visits, and exhibitions - that are being developed in order to comply with the requirements attached to the grant that has been received.

St John’s College Library and the Hoyle Collection

St John’s College is one of the 32 Colleges of the University of Cambridge.  It was founded in 1511, and has approximately 800 students and 140 fellows (who undertake teaching, research and administrative work).  The College has its own library, separate from the main University Library and the libraries of the faculties and departments of the University.

St John’s College Library is split into two parts.  The Working Library has about 80,000 books, as well as current periodicals and audio-visual materials.  It serves the day-to-day needs of students and covers all subjects taught in the University.  The seventeenth-century Old Library houses the College’s special collections, all of which might loosely be termed ‘archival’, although they are kept in the Library.  The institutional and administrative archives of the College are maintained by a separate archivist.  The Old Library special collections include more than 300 western medieval and oriental manuscripts; about 340 incunabula; approximately 50,000 early printed books; artefacts including a materia medica cabinet, busts, and medals; and about 100 collections of the personal papers of former fellows of the College.

The largest of the collections of personal papers is that of Professor Sir Fred Hoyle FRS (1915-2001).  Hoyle was an astronomer and physicist, and a fellow of St John’s College from 1939 to 1972.  He is most famous in England for having invented the phrase “big bang” to describe one theory of the formation of the universe.  He did not believe in this theory, and in the late 1940s devised instead the theory of the continuous creation of matter in a steady state universe in collaboration with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold.  Hoyle’s most famous scientific work was on stellar nucleosynthesis: the creation of the chemical elements inside stars.  In 1957 he published the seminal paper in the field with Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge and Willy Fowler (‘Synthesis of the Elements in Stars’, Reviews of modern physics 29 (1957), pp. 547-650). 

Hoyle became known to the public as a populariser of science.  He gave radio talks about the universe on the BBC in the 1950s, and published book versions of these talks that ran to several editions.  He was also a controversial figure.  After the discovery of quasars in the early 1960s, Hoyle became embroiled in a very public argument with Martin Ryle, a Cambridge radio astronomer, about whether data on quasars supported the big bang or steady state theory.  Later in his career he developed a theory of panspermia: the idea that life came to earth from space.  He published several books attacking some elements of Darwinian evolution and suggesting that epidemics on earth are caused by space-borne viruses.  Hoyle was also an author of science fiction novels such as The black cloud, which were translated into many languages.  Despite his broad interests he also managed to find time for hobbies, principally mountain climbing, especially in Scotland, and playing chess.

The Hoyle papers were donated to St John’s College Library by Hoyle’s family in 2002. The collection is very large and rich, covering all aspects of Hoyle’s life.  It comprises 150 archival boxes containing correspondence, drafts of scientific papers, manuscripts of Hoyle’s science-fiction novels, photographs, film reels, slides,
and artefacts including Hoyle’s childhood telescope, his spectacles and his ice-axes.  The papers were not organized in any way, but a box listing had been made by Hoyle’s son Geoffrey.

Funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund

It has been traditional Library policy that personal paper collections be catalogued by core Library staff as and when time and other duties permitted.  The Hoyle collection is, however, so large and complex that it could not be catalogued in a reasonable period of time by any existing members of staff.  The College does not have unlimited sums of money available to employ extra Library staff for cataloguing projects of this kind; it was willing to offer some money, but could not fund an entire project.  The collection was offered to the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS), but they were unable to take it on.  They suggested that St John’s College approach the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was set up by the British Parliament in 1994 to give grants to a wide range of projects involving the local, regional and national heritage of the United Kingdom.  It distributes part of the money that the British National Lottery raises for “good causes”.  From every pound spent on lottery tickets in the UK, 28p goes directly to organizations supporting five “good causes”: arts, charities, heritage, sports and health, education and the environment. 

Since 1994 the HLF has awarded over £4.3 billion to more than 28,800 projects across the UK and it will allocate around £220 million to projects in 2009.  The HLF awards grants of £3,000 to £2,000,000 or even more.  Last year, four out of five of their grants were for amounts of less than £50,000, many going to small community groups.  Its biggest ever grant was £26 million to restore the Kennett and Avon canal in south central England.  It is officially known as a ‘non-departmental public body’. This means that, although it is not a government department, the government issues financial and policy directions to it and it reports to Parliament through the department.  Its decisions about individual applications and policies are entirely independent.

The HLF defines heritage as any of the following:
•    people's memories and experiences
•    histories of people, communities, places and events
•    cultural traditions
•    historic buildings and townscapes
•    archaeological sites
•    collections of items, archives or other materials
•    natural and designed landscapes
•    habitats and species
•    sites and collections with  links to industrial, maritime and transport history
      It helps to fund projects that do one or more of three things:
•    conserve the UK's diverse heritage for present and future generations to experience
      and enjoy;
•    help more people, and a wider range of people, to take an active part in and make
      decisions about their heritage;
•    help people to learn about their own and other people's heritage
The emphasis is not on the description or preservation of heritage material, but on opening it up so that the community can enjoy it and learn from it.

An application for a “your heritage” grant was submitted in May 2007 and requested a grant of £48,000, intended to cover half of the cost of the project.  The budget allowed for a full-time member of professional staff to work on the project for 3 years, and it also included allowances for equipment, stationery, publicity, training and a small contingency fund.  The project was branded as a flagship scheme of a Cambridge College opening its collections to the public.  In return for the funding the Library undertook to catalogue the Hoyle Collection to item level, and to publish this catalogue on the internet.  It also agreed to organise various visits to the Library, in the form of public open days, to be called ‘Hoyle Days’, and also privately-arranged visits for schools and special interest groups such as astronomical societies and adult education organisations.  Furthermore, it agreed to create an online exhibition of Hoyle material, linked to the National Curriculum for Schools.  Finally, it stated that it would recruit volunteers to help with events and take visitors on tours of the Library and collection.  The application included a detailed schedule of how these activities would be organised in the three years.

The HLF provide support to applicants throughout the application process.  They advise applicants about ways to improve their application, and help to shape the intended projects.  This means that there is a nearly 90% success rate for those who submit the final, full, application form.  The Library’s application was further aided by letters of support from famous scientists, local schools, the University of Cambridge astronomy department, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and others.

The HLF grant was awarded to the Hoyle Project in July 2007, and at that time St John’s College confirmed that they would provide the other half of the funding.  The project was also able to obtain a grant of $10,000 from the Friends of the Center for the History of Physics, American Institute of Physics.  The Hoyle Project Associate was recruited in January 2008, and the project started in March 2008.

The Fred Hoyle Project

Aside from beginning to process the collection, the first event in the project was to create a webpage for the project as part of the College website:  This webpage is being continually extended and developed as the project grows.  In due course it will incorporate online exhibitions of material from the Hoyle Collection. 

The first public event was a ‘Hoyle Day’ held in November 2008.  This was a free Library open day.  There was an exhibition of Hoyle papers in the Old Library, and a lecture in the afternoon from a doctor of Astronomy from Cambridge, who talked about Fred Hoyle’s scientific legacy.  The event was publicised to local astronomical societies, and also to members of the College and University.  More than 180 visitors came to the exhibition, and the lecture was “standing room only” with an audience of about 60 people.  Visitor feedback was uniformly positive, and it was especially gratifying to receive responses that commented positively on the College’s willingness to open access to archival material.

The second event was part of Cambridge Science Festival.  Cambridge Science Festival is an annual ten-day event of free, mainly family-oriented science events in and around Cambridge.  It is organised and run by the University of Cambridge.  An event based on Hoyle’s science fiction writing took place on Saturday 14 March 2009.  370 visitors came to an exhibition in the Old Library, and families took part in a “hands-on” activity producing illustrations for one of Hoyle’s books.  The illustrations they produced are now displayed on the Library website and in a temporary display in the Library itself.  The project will hopefully be a part of the Science Festival for the next two years.

The next large event will be an exhibition ‘The way to the stars’, which will display material relating to the history of astronomy in the college.  This will draw on the Hoyle Collection, but also other items from the special collections and also material from the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge.  The exhibition will run from October to December 2009, and will be launched with a second Hoyle Day examining the history of astronomy and Hoyle’s place in it.

The Hoyle Project Associate is also liaising with various local organisations, including secondary schools and colleges, and adult education groups, offering free visits to the library to view parts of the Hoyle Collection.

Project Evaluation

The HLF pays out the first 50% of its grants at the start of the project.  It will then award a further 40% of the grant only when the first 50% has been spent in a proper fashion, and the goals of the project are being met.  At the end of the project, the grant recipient has to complete a final report, detailing the outcomes of the project and the way the HLF grant has been spent.  If this report is satisfactory, the HLF will award the last 10% of the grant.  Obviously, careful record keeping and visitor feedback evaluation is needed in order to be able to satisfy the demands of the HLF.


In order to obtain this sort of funding for a project in a Cambridge College, it was necessary to rethink what is possible in the setting.  Funding cannot be achieved for a cataloguing project alone.  It was necessary to investigate what other aspects might be introduced – open days, school visits, online exhibitions – in order to enable more people to see the collection.  This facet of the project has not simply been an “add-on” to the cataloguing; it has positively changed the way the Library has thought about its wider educational role.  The Library’s success in obtaining funding was due to a number of factors: the prominence of Fred Hoyle in the history of twentieth-century science, the time and creative energy put in to the application by a number of Library staff, and the willingness to step out of the traditional college library box and engage with new audiences.