Explore the NOAA Library's Extensive Collection of Rare Polar Books and Images Online

Map of original IPY stations, Antarctic sunset

A sampling from NOAA's on-line photo collection


Before real-time technology and blogs, people curious about polar exploration relied on published accounts.

The NOAA Central Library in Silver Spring, MD., is exhibiting some of the extremely rare and valuable tomes in its polar collection until March 2009, the official end of IPY. Those resources include 17 shelves of books and a selection housed in the library’s rare book room, as well as maps, charts, and other images.

“NOAA has an incredible amount of polar resources,” said Anna Fiolek, a metadata librarian at the library, and one of the exhibit organizers.

An online, digitized version of the collection is available here

The NOAA Photo Library's voluminous NOAA at the Ends of the Earth collection may also be searched for Arctic and Antarctic historical images.

Fiolek and Diana Abney, a digital collection librarian, digitized the polar collection. But there is still some of the mystery and enchantment of polar expeditions attached to the books themselves.

Names of ships in gilt and black lettering on book spines –- Discovery, Terra Nova, or Endurance -- evoke the spirit of the early polar explorers. The shelves hold German arctic reports, journals in Russian, transactions of the Arctic Institute, and reports of Japanese expeditions, reflecting the decades-long international scientific endeavors at both poles.

Ten books were selected and are on display in the NOAA library lobby in Silver Spring

One small book in the exhibit, Matthew Arnold’s “Poems,” may seem rather ordinary, but for the fact that it was found in Robert Falcon Scott’s hut at cape Evans by Ned Ostenso, who visited Scott’s hut at Cape Evans in 1956, and went on to become NOAA’s assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research. When Ostenso died, his will stipulated that the book of poems, along with his extensive polar science book collection, be donated to the NOAA library.

Scott’s expedition aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole. Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat him by 35 days, arriving on Dec. 14, 1911. On one grey, metal library shelf two red-bound volumes of Amundsen’s successful effort sit next to Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the Scott effort – “The Worst Journey in the World.” A book away is “The Coldest March,” by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, who pored over the meticulous meteorological records kept by the Scott expedition, to conclude that the expedition was doomed by exceptionally cold weather.

“We are very proud of our collection, especially our polar collection,” Fiolek said. “It reflects out predecessor agencies, the Weather Bureau, the Fish Commission, and the Coast and Geodetic Survey. We often get donations from the scientists themselves.”

The idea for the exhibit and for digitizing the polar collection came when the library sought a way to participate in IPY. Since then, Fiolek has given presentations to groups federal and university librarians about the importance of IPY and how the NOAA library’s collection contributes. Abney used polar themes for the library’s activities for the annual “Bring Your Child to Work Day.”

The fragile red cover of “Arctic Views,” a collection of photographs taken in the 1880s, reminds one that new technology can help preserve the old.

“It is important to preserve documents through digitalization,” said Abney.

The polar collection was digitalized through the Climate Data Modem Project at Ashville, NC. There is an archive copy in .tiff format and a user-friendly edition in PDF of each piece in the polar collection.

Preserving these documents digitally will also make it easier for future scientists and explorers to read about Scott’s heroic efforts, or how Shackleton’s party survived, or how the crew of the Italia was rescued. The digital documents may also send other readers to the bookshelves, where detailed accounts await of the successes and disappointments of human exploration.