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Lick Observatory, 1907

Lick Observatory Historical Collections Project

Lick Observatory has been in operation since 1888. Over the years, a wealth of material illustrating the growth of astronomy has accumulated on Mount Hamilton. Much of that legacy has been preserved in the Mary Lea Shane Archive of UC Santa Cruz’s Special Collections, but many important artifacts pertaining to the observatory’s scientific life remain on the mountain.

Quartz prism double star micrometer build by Warner and Swayze. Photo by Tony Misch.

The Historical Collections Project began in 2008 to preserve those artifacts and make them accessible. Cataloging the collection of scientific objects is the project’s first goal. This includes cataloging the hardware used in all types of observatory work, including complete instruments, separate components, measuring devices, photographic apparata, and so on. Cataloging is ongoing and many items remain to be recorded.

The project is also concerned with other collections related to the scientific objects, including handwritten log books of Lick astronomers and photographic plates mainly comprising spectrograms and direct images from all Lick programs, instruments, and telescopes of the photographic era. A log-book database with nearly 2,000 records was added in 2012. Other parts of these collections will become available as they are cataloged.

View Historical Collections Project

James Lick

Jame Lick, portrait by Hartwig Bornemann, scanned by Michael Chambers and digital restoration done by Laurie Hatch.

Lick Observatory began operations in 1888 as part of the University of California. It was founded by a bequest from James Lick, real-estate entrepreneur and California’s wealthiest citizen. Lick’s gift of $700,000 was the largest philanthropic gift in the history of science and would amount to $1.2 billion by today’s standards.

Read more about James Lick and the building of the Observatory.

Learn more about our historic telescopes, including the 36″ Lick Refractor.

Mary Lea Shane Archives

Allan Dyson and Mary Lea Shane at archives dedication, 1982.

This archive was established in honor of astronomers Dr. Charles Donald Shane, former Director of the University of California’s Lick Observatory, and Dr. Mary Lea Shane, whose effort to preserve and organize the early records of the Lick Observatory was critical to documenting the history of the world’s first mountain-top observatory. The endowment provides ongoing support for the archives as well as essential indexes and finding aides.

The Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory consists of correspondence, letterpress copybooks, photographs, portraits, diaries, and logs related to the planning, construction, personnel, and activities of the Lick Observatory. Endowment income is used to maintain and enrich the archives, including support for acquisitions, copying, facilities, supplies, and equipment, and staffing for processing, indexing, and public service.

The Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory have been incorporated into the Special Collections at the UCSC Library.

Lick Observatory Records at UC Santa Cruz

Special Collections at the University Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, hosts the Lick Observatory Records, as well as the papers of several astronomers associated with the Observatory. These collections form the Archives of Lick Observatory, which includes records from about 1870 to the mid-twentieth century describing the founding construction and operation of the observatory and documenting all aspects of the early astronomical ambitions and achievements of its founders. The following Lick Observatory Records can be viewed:

  • Series 1: Correspondence
  • Series 2: Business records
  • Series 3: Directors’ files
  • Series 4: Expeditions
  • Series 5: Research and Publication files
  • Series 6: Glass negatives
  • Series 7: Photographs
  • Series 8: Lick History

The Archives’ extensive collection of historical photographs includes portraits of astronomers, telescope and lens makers and other prominent scientists, scenes of life at the observatory on Mount Hamilton, instruments, and documentation of expeditions.

View Lick Observatory Records

Lick Observatory Photographs

A large number of photographs have been scanned and are available for viewing at the UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections.

View Lick Observatory Historical Photographs 

Lick Observatory Oral Histories

A few oral histories from Lick Observatory astronomers or residents have been saved in the UC Santa Cruz Special Collections.

Listen to Lick Observatory Oral Histories 

Lick Observatory Highlights Time-Line

Lick Observatory has been at the forefront of astronomy since its founding in 1888 as the first year-round accessible mountain-top observatory.  View a time-line of notable events at both Lick Observatory and its parent organization, UC Observatories.

Alliance of Historic Observatories

Lick is a member of The Alliance of Historic Observatories (AHO) established in 2019 AHO is an affiliation that facilitates collaboration among member observatories to preserve and share their legacies, and support their ongoing missions.