Visiting the Past: digitizing the Townsend Telescope Visitors' Book

In September last year, CEISMIC released a collection of material documenting the earthquake damage and restoration of the Townsend Telescope (a blog post about this collection can be found here). Since then we have been working on a project to digitise the Observatory’s Visitors’ Book, which was recovered alongside the telescope from the rubble of the Observatory tower. Last week, scans of the pages were made available in the QuakeStudies digital archive.

The Visitors’ Book is from the early ‘80’s, but now looks at least a hundred years old. It has been scratched and beaten by rubble, damaged by rain, and the spine is now permanently warped. We even found little pieces of masonry within the pages which we brushed out and kept so that we could display the pieces alongside the book.

The book was digitised using the ATIZ BookDrive Pro which is currently housed in the James Hight Library at the University of Canterbury. The BookDrive has a V-Shaped book cradle which holds books open at about 100°, reducing stress to book spines, and limiting page curvature. Two cameras are mounted on either side of the cradle which individually capture the left and right pages of the book. This enabled us to get high-quality scans of the pages without causing further damage to the book.


A quick read of the pages reveals the significance of the telescope to the Canterbury community. Countless school groups, tourists, and locals and filled in the book with messages such as, ‘An interesting introduction to the night sky’, ‘Educational’, and, ‘I’ve never seen Saturn before’. It seems that for many, the Observatory offered them their first experience of stargazing. A message at the end of the book also reveals the significance the telescope had for students working in the Observatory:

“Working at the townsend has been the best part of my years at Canterbury hands down. I wish I didn’t have to leave it this way and my heart breaks to think of those who will miss out. May you rise again townsend and see the stars again. Thanks for all the fun nights. Sarah Bouckons.”

Memorable names pop-up in the book from time to time, including Murray Edmond (Poet and Playwright, Ronnie Van Hout (Artist) and Jason Grieg (Artist). Philip Catton, father to Eleanor Catton, shows up on the very first page:

Currently the Vistors’ Book is on display on the bottom floor of the Matariki building as part of an exhibit on the Townsend Telescope. The exhibition also holds parts of the damaged telescope and information about its history and restoration. CEISMIC has installed a laptop and screen as part of the exhibition, which allows visitors to view the digitised pages onsite. We welcome anyone to visit the exhibition, which is running until Wednesday 6 July.