Top of page

Collection Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond

About this Collection

A thematic collection exploring changing models of the universe through time, ideas of life on other words and Carl Sagan’s place in the tradition of science. It features manuscripts, rare books, celestial atlases, newspaper articles, sheet music and movie posters.

Like our ancestors, we look up at the heavens and wonder. What is the structure of the universe? How significant are we? Are we alone? In Carl Sagan's words, "we are a way for the cosmos to know itself." To commemorate the acquisition of The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, the Library of Congress presents an exploration of these questions across the breadth of its collections and offers a first glimpse into Carl Sagan's papers.

This online collection includes three primary sections.

The Cosmos: Its Structure and Historical Models

This section showcases rare books, manuscripts and celestial maps from the Library of Congress collections illustrating the history of modeling the cosmos. Starting with ancient Greek astronomy and following developments in the Islamic world, these essays also highlight the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others. The section continues by exploring Descartes and Newton's development of a mechanical model for the universe, the realization that the stars are suns and ultimately that the Milky Way is one galaxy among many in the universe. The goal of this section is to provide a general overview of the history of our understanding of the universe and offer a view of how our knowledge of nature develops over time.

Life on Other Worlds: History of the Possibility

This section showcases early science fiction books and pop-culture items like sheet music, movie posters and trailers alongside newspaper articles, astronomy books and items from Carl Sagan's papers. Through these materials, the section explores the interplay between imagination and science in how our ideas about life on other worlds have developed over time.  Starting with the notion of life on the moon from the 1630s, essays also look at the history of interpreting the geography and alleged canals of Mars. From there, we consider how scientists and science fiction writers imagined civilization on Mars, Americans' persistent belief in UFO's, and our attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials. The primary goal of this section is to illustrate the important connection between imagination and rigorous science and present how our ideas about life in the universe have developed over time.

Carl Sagan and the Tradition of Science

Primarily showcasing items from The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive this section contextualizes Carl Sagan in the tradition of science. It starts by presenting how Sagan became interested and passionate about the universe as a young child and then follows the development of the depth and breadth of his interests in high school and college. From there it focuses on his connections to mentors like Harold Urey, Gerard Kuiper and Hermann Muller. This section concludes by exploring the many roles Sagan played as a mentor and role model to scientists, science communicators and the public at large.

Collection Objectives

The goal of this collection is to explore connections between some of Carl Sagan's work, communicating about the cosmos and the possibilities of life on other worlds and the extensive diversity of collections of the Library of Congress. It is a thematic showcase of digitized items from many corners of the collections, brought together with the hope of prompting visitors to expand their knowledge and come to their own understanding by engaging with a range of digitized primary sources. Unlike a physical exhibition, this online presentation is not limited by what can be framed and hung on a wall. Whenever possible, books, manuscripts, radiobroadcast and other materials have been digitized in full. The result is a wealth of material, much of it full-text searchable for visitors to explore.

Nothing about this online collection and presentation is intended to be comprehensive. This is true of both the historical narrative in the thematic essay presentations and the selections of featured items from across the Library's collections. Instead, this collection and its essays, are intended to glance off the various topics discussed and serve as a point of entry to a wide array of primary source treasures related to the history of astronomy and ideas about life in the universe in the Library of Congress collections. It's a hypertext, a linked juxtaposition of interpretation – explication and primary sources intended to be explored in whatever path a visitor wants to take.

Given the massive scale of the Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive the few hundred items digitized from that collection and presented here in this online collection are a microscopic sliver of this archive's contents. Our hope is that this thematic collection showcases some of the kinds of treasures contained within. For those interested, a finding aid for the collection is located online here.