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Telescopes At Cincinnati Libraries Still Have A Long Waiting List

Astronomer Dean Regas at the Cincinnati Observatory.
Bill Rinehart
Astronomer Dean Regas at the Cincinnati Observatory.

The Cincinnati Observatory has donated several telescopes to the Cincinnati Hamilton County Public Library system with the hope more people will get hooked on stargazing. It appears to have worked.

Libraries are lending a lot more than just books. Many have all kinds of non-traditional things, and at some, you can borrow a telescope, usually an easy-to-use tabletop model for people who might not normally have access. It's an effort to bring the skies closer to more backyards.

Don Ficken loves to be around when someone uses a telescope for the first time. "When you look through a telescope and you find the moon on your own, and you zoom in and you realize there's these amazing craters and these amazing things to look at, it's like tasting chocolate, not just hearing about it, right?"

Ficken is with the St. Louis Astronomical Society, and wants to make it easier to use telescopes. While Cincinnati's library just started it's lending program, a nationwide effort began in 2008, and works with libraries to get durable, affordable, beginner scopes.

"The telescopes, once they're in the libraries, they've actually held up pretty well. It's a pretty simple design, so there's not a lot of maintenance issues or big concerns," Ficken says.

Todd Haydon borrowed a 4.5 inch refractor telescope from the Cincinnati Hamilton County Public Library in June and set it up in the backyard. The moon wasn't up that night, and there were no planets in the little patch of sky visible between the treetops, but Haydon did spot what he thinks was a geo-stationary satellite.

"It was pretty cool," he says. "It was like a black box with some lights shining off of it. That was the only thing that was really out that night at that time. We stayed out past our bedtime which is about 10 o'clock or so."

That was the night his wife, Susan Cooney, looked through a telescope for the first time. "The idea of looking through the telescope and seeing something that's so incredibly far away, it just puts you in awe," she says. "This feeling, it just stops you to think about the whole entire universe and how small I am and how big everything is, and that, I can't even comprehend. It's pretty fascinating."

The feeling is apparently pretty common. Sky and Telescope magazine reported last fall on a surge in telescope sales. The October 16 article says pandemic-related isolation had vendors scrambling to keep up with demand.

Cincinnati Observatory Astronomer Dean Regas says that craving to see the night sky is still strong this year.

"I know it's kind of corny to say, but getting outside, getting out of the house, looking up and seeing the stars, I think it really helped me through this year and a half," he says. "I think a lot of people are the same way. The demand for telescopes is through the roof. You can hardly get a new telescope because there are so many people wanting to do this."

Regas and the Observatory loan telescopes to members. Recently, they donated five telescopes to the local library system, with the hope more people will get hooked on stargazing. "Amateur astronomers find comets. They look at solar system incidents, like things hitting Jupiter. We've seen that documented by amateur astronomers. The line between amateur and professional astronomer is very blurry and they work very well together," Regas says.

There's a lengthy waiting list for the five scopes, and Cincinnati Hamilton County Library Director Paula Brehm-Heeger says they plan to get five more.

She says libraries across the country are growing the list of non-traditional things people can check out. Hers offers museum passes, hotspots, bike locks and cellphone chargers.

"People really want that hands-on experience, and I think it reflects not just a change in libraries and an openness to doing things differently, but information itself is more collaborative and creative."

Todd Haydon says after a week, the library asked him to bring it back, because others were eager to check it out. He's waiting for another chance to borrow one. In the meantime, he's also thinking about getting his own.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.