Fascination with the sky and its elements was a characteristic of prehistoric peoples. This fascination continues in the form of the science called astronomy. Determining our place in a celestial system and the place of that system in the universe is a goal of those who practice astronomy.
Astronomy has undergone significant transformations. Once the province of optical methodologies, astronomy is now employing techniques ranging from radio waves to high-level mathematics. Physics and mathematics are playing a much larger role in astronomy. The ability of an astronomer to see with the eye is less important now than at any time in astronomy’s history. Proof comes from formulas and algorithms, and less from observation. This is not to say observation in astronomy is dead. The methodologies to push the frontiers of astronomy are more numerous than ever before but observation will continue to be a major part of astronomy.
The new techniques in astronomy carry with them a literature that needs to be merged with astronomy’s traditional literature. The use of physics, mathematics, computer science, and other disciplines means that sections of literature from these disciplines will find their way into the literature of astronomy. The difficulty is in determining when and how this literature will be used. Bibliographic control of the traditional astronomy literature was reasonable. As astronomy has broadened its techniques for obtaining data and information, control of the literature has become less reliable.
Astronomy is the recipient of a great deal of information from space probes and new observations. These new data sets are being incorporated into the literature as quickly as possible. The new knowledge they generate will change and replace current thought in astronomy. Astronomers and those in the information professions should be wary of the considerable amount of literature in astronomy. This may be especially true for the secondary literature such as dictionaries and encyclopedias.
As is in the case with most of the literature of science and technology, the monographic literature of astronomy is not a tool of the researcher, but the archival description of the field. Much of the new data and theoretical advances are published in journal literature and in research notes within the journal literature. Conferences are especially important in some fields of astronomy because of the currentness of information to be obtained there and the informal information flow. There is a high reliance on star catalogs and data sources in printed form, which are indispensable to working astronomers at all levels.
The future for astronomy and its literature is rich and full. Significant data will be generated from sources such as the Hubble Telescope and missions to other planets. Data from these sources will move the discipline of astronomy in new and unforeseen ways. As long as government funding continues to be used for space exploration, astronomy will be able to mine a continuing and rich influx of data. These data will require the use of tools already in astronomy, in other disciplines, or yet to be developed. This will make bibliographic control of astronomy even more difficult.