04 January 2013

The Inimitable Burnham's

A user of Deep-Sky Planner contributed 83 plan files that contained the deep-sky objects from Burnham's Celestial Handbook. I checked the plan files against my rather dog-earred 3 volume set for accuracy. Paging through these softbound copies brought back some great memories.

I purchased a softcover set in the mid-eighties when I first became an active observer. Ultimately there were 3 sets in my household - 2 for indoor use and one for outdoor use. The latter set accompanied me on most observing sessions for years. Burnham's was a great reference resource back in the days before the Internet revolutionized astronomical research for observers and astrophotographers. Those volumes never needed cellular or wi-fi signal in the field either.

My recent use of these books reminded me of 2 things:
  • What a great work this was! No wonder everyone owned a set 25 years ago.
  • Although the data in the set is dated, it is still a handy resource. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the set to someone new to astronomy.
If Burnham's is such a nice resource, why hasn't a new edition been published? To me, a new edition should have updated object data and the printing style would be updated (using hand drawn Greek letters for double stars was always a bit quaint). I would leave Burnham's comments as they are because that is what separates this resource from others available today. I would release the books in print and as e-books.

So why hasn't a second edition happened? I suppose that the reasons are legal and economic. I suspect that the manuscript is not digitized. That means the content would have to be digitized first. I would think that this could be automated, but an investment of some man-hours would be necessary ($$$). After an accurate digitization, object data would need to be updated. That would be more man-hours ($), but probably a small fraction of the first effort. Finally, the owner of the copyrights would have to authorize a new edition or a third party would have to acquire the copyrights. According to US Copyright Office records, the copyrights were transferred from Burnham's estate to a trustee in 1996 and they endure for 70 years. Executing this step would entail legal fees ($$) and perhaps a purchase of copyrights.

I wouldn't be surprised if all of the above investment scares away would-be publishers. If my analysis is valid, a new edition of Burnham's seems very unlikely. What a shame - I would purchase an updated set without hesitation in both printed and electronic formats.