Information Resources for Botanical Gardens

by Ian MacPhail *

*Note: Ian MacPhail was Librarian at the Sterling Morton Library, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois, at the time this talk was delivered.  Paper delivered at the Annual Meeting in San Mateo, California, May 6, 1981 at a joint session  of the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Libraries and the American Association  of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. The talk was later published in AABGA’s Bulletin, 15 (3): pp. 90-95,   1981.  It is reprinted here with AABGA’s permission. Some of its content is still very actual. Enjoy your reading.

Botanical gardens, like Caesar’s Gaul, are divided into three parts: the living collections, the  dried collections (the herbarium) and the library. This is a very ancient tradition and goes back  to the first botanical gardens founded in Padua and Pisa. When Joy Morton decided to establish his arboretum in northeastern Illinois, he turned for advice to Charles Sprague Sargent, the Director  of the Arnold Arboretum. Sargent, aware of this classical triad said to him, “You must have a   library.” He laid great stress on it and even gave Joy Morton duplicate copies of works from   the Arnold Arboretum library. These, together with books from Morton’s own collections and   those books that Sargent advised him to buy, formed the foundation of our library in 1922   at the Morton Arboretum.

In my more megalomaniac moments, I tend to think that the library is the core or center of  the Morton Arboretum around which all its other activities revolve. It is not, of course,  but nor is the library some remote peripheral body with only tenuous attachment to the central  activity of the Arboretum whatever that may be deemed to be. The truth is, I believe, that the classical conception of the botanical garden, approved by Sargent, is sound and the three parts  are complements of a whole, interwoven with each other and necessary to each other; validated  by each other if you will. A great garden such as New York Botanical Garden or the Missouri   Botanical Garden is matched by a great library and that is no accident. It is a necessary connection.

If information is what you want, however, you can find it in the library. In the Sterling Morton Library  we have 23,000 volumes including monographs and bound journals. We subscribe to 500 journals and  keep back-files of nearly all of them. We have 1,700 pamphlets, 28 drawers of vertical file material, a small amount of material on tape cassettes (lectures and sumposia that have been  held at the Arboretum), and a small collection of microforms mostly of otherwise unobtainable  journals. We have a collection of 3,000 rare books, dating from the 15th century down to modern  limited editions. We have a collection of prints and drawings of plants, i.e., one of the forms  in which an original work can be reproduced in multiple copies, woodcut, wood-engraving, metal  engraving, etching, mezzotint and lithography. Those are the bare statistical facts. All this  material is cataloged, classified, indexed and arranged for easy consultation and reference.

The library is primarily for the use of the staff of the Arboretum. That is our raison d’être —  to support the purposes and the day-to-day work of the arboretum. We support the work of the  horticultural and dendrological staffs, the people who have to grow the plants, trees or shrubs, by collecting and providing literature on the plants themselves, floras or silvas describing  them in their native habitats, the ecological conditions they required — soil, temperature,  climate, light — the diseases to which they are subject; the remedies, chemical or biological,  and their use in landscape or urban design. This is the core of our collection, a large array of  monographic material supported by a wide range of journals that report current research.

We support the work of the taxonomic staff, those who care for the herbarium and those whose task it is to identify the living collections on the grounds. This is one of the strengths  of our library. In addition to floras from every state in the union, we have floras from  almost every country in Europe and from areas such as northern China and Japan that are  climatically similar to northeastern Illinois and grow the same plants as we do. These modern  works are backed up by great classical works such as Das Pflanzenreich and Die Naturliche  Pflanzenfamilien, and by works in our rare book collection that provide original or early  descriptions of new plants, many with fine illustrations, such as Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.  For many years, we have indexed references to woody plants in the journals that we subscribe  to, and this index now provides a rich resource for the taxonomy and horticulture of woody plants  and also for their illustration.
Just a word about illustrations of plants. This is something that we are always being asked for.  For early works, the source is Index Londinensis and we have many of the works that are referred  to there in our rare book collection. For modern works with colored illustrations, we now have the  fine two-volume Flowering Plant Index of Illustration and Information by Richard Isaacson, Librarian  of the Cleveland Garden Center. These two works make it a simple matter for us to produce an illustration of almost any plant you care to name.
We support the work of the education programs at the Arboretum. We have programs in all four seasons of the year. This spring, for example, we had programs on field natural history, on prairie plants, on spring mushrooms and wildflowers, and on the life and works of the great plant explorer of North  America, Thomas Nuttall. Also, we had bird walks, classes on landscape uses of evergreens, on ground  covers, on trees for homeowners and on outdoor photography. Each instructor is asked to submit a   bibliography of works available in the library for the use of students in these classes.

Finally, we support the work of the research staff by buying or borrowing the texts they need and obtaining photocopies of journal articles not in our own collections. We belong to a library  network called ILLINET and have access to the resources of a wide range of libraries within the  state and beyond, if they cannot supply what we need. They are not always very fast but they have  seldom failed to provide the required reference, however exotic. This year, after thinking and  talking about it for a long time, we have acquired the use of a computer terminal and have budgeted  a subscription to the Lockheed Dialog system which gives us access to a large number of useful   databases and has incidentally allowed us to drop our subscriptions to some expensive abstracting   and indexing journals.

This new electronic aid has been of benefit to our research staff in particular, as you might expect,  and has enabled us to find quickly references to studies in Vauquelinia, for example, or to pine wood  nematodes, which would otherwise have taken many hours of patient searching.

Because the library is a unique resource in the Chicago area with a subject focus not covered by the  Field Museum, for instance, or the Chicago Botanic Garden, it is open to anybody who needs to use it and our public use has been slowly but steadily growing over the years until it is now equal  to staff use.

I do not much care for the title of this symposium — “Information Resources” — because it seems to get us off on the wrong foot. Information is something that comes in bits or bytes and is  nowadays electronically packaged for the consumer at a cost of so much per connect time. You get it,   along with a little radiation, on a CRT screen or in a print-out on poor paper and worse print.    I sound as if I am decrying these new instruments of technology. I am not. I have used them and they can perform marvelously useful feats and clearly have an enormous and indispensable role to play, but we are in danger of supposing that they can replace libraries.

The other day on my car radio I heard the Secretary of Education say that he foresaw a time not too far in the future when paper and printing ink would disappear and books would no longer be the means  of education. I hope he is wrong, and not just because I am a librarian and care about books.

Providing information is an inadequate description of what libraries do. How many bits make a byte?  How many bytes make an education or a culture or a civilization? That question is at the least  ridiculous, and it is ridiculous for the same reasons that I have misgivings about the title of this symposium.

Let me try to explain what I mean. Here are three statements quoted from work by Stephen Jay Gould:

Organisms vary and these variations are inherited (at least in part) by their offspring.

  • Organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive.
  • On average, offspring that vary most strongly in directions favored by the environment   will survive and propagate. Favorable variations will therefore accumulate in populations by   natural selection.

Everybody here will recognize those three succinct statements as a summation of  the Darwinian theory of evolution. These three statements can be fed into a computer’s memory  and dutifully regurgitated as information to anyone who asks the question, “What is Darwin’s  theory of evolution?” But they are of course not the answer to the question. There is a philosophical principle that I was brought up with which says that the meaning of a  statement is its method of verification. The meaning of the theory of evolution in other words  is the voyage of the Beagle and young Charles Darwin reading Lyell’s Principles of Geology on  the voyage out, walking among the bones of the Megatherium and Scelidotherium on a beach in  Patagonia, comparing the finches of different islands in the Galapagos, working at his home  in Kent for 23 years, reading, studying, and experimenting before he set it all down in The  Origin of Species. It is The Origin of Species itself, Wallace in the tropical forests of  Malaysia, Mendel in his monastery garden with his pea plants, Watson and Crick unraveling  the double helix of DNA, and all the books and papers that have been and continue to be written  on this vast subject. This is not a matter of information. It is a matter of knowledge and  experience, culture and civilization. It is to be found in books and libraries.

Are we really going to transfer all this accumulation of the world’s knowledge to magnetic tape or  (heaven help us!) floppy disks? A power cut or a sliced telephone line will make them unavailable.

An article in the Museum News from January/February tries to persuade us that the laser optical video  disc is the ultimate permanent archival medium, almost indestructible. I do not believe it but  even if it is true, you cannot read it without some quite sophisticated energy-dependent equipment. A book is much more efficient and a wellmade book is a remarkably durable object. What is more it  does not require a machine to read it. All you do is pick it off the shelf, sit down in a comfortable  chair, and read. Of course, you have to expend some energy turning all those pages. You can however,  read it anywhere: standing up, reclining under a tree, riding in a bus or lying in bed. Imagine  reading a video disk in bed.

This even has political implications. Books can be censored, banned and burned, and they have been  throughout history, but they are easy to conceal, easy to read in secret or in defiance, easy to produce. There have always been underground presses under the most authoritarian regimes. All the  government has to do with video discs is to pull the plug and shut off the power. Our freedoms lie  with books.
Unfortunately, books today are not as durable as they used to be. Groundwood paper and unsewn bindings  are the order of the day, and it has been estimated that more than 90% of books printed today will not  survive for more than fifty years.

Have we reached such a point that we do not care about presenting our time and culture to future generations? Do we think so little of ourselves that we consign our records to groundwood paper  and microfilm and electronic hardware? Do we care so little for the past records of our civilization  that we think that books and libraries are luxurious frills that we cannot afford — the first items  to be cut in our budgets, the first objects to be sold to pay our debts? A former governor of   California wanted to sell all the rare books at the University of California to help pay the costs   of education. Education is not to be saved by dismantling its foundations. If the University of   California is one of the great universities of the world, it is so not least because of the richness   of its collection of rare books which attract scholars from all over the civilized world.

A library is more than a collection of books. It is a selection of books for a purpose, chosen with care, cataloged and classified by men and women with professional skills. But it is more than this. A  collection of books in a library is more than the sum of its parts. It is a unique accumulation of a  part of the world’s knowledge and experience. Its financial value (which may be enormous) is trivial  compared with its value as a resource, a record of the history of human thought, a vast memory. Lawrence  Towner, President of the Newberry Library in Chicago, said recently:

If we do not preserve the literary and historical record, if we do not strive continuously  to augment it and to make it readily available we will lose mankind’s memory and the ability  to make human and humane judgements. The library is the stored-up memory of mankind. Without  that memory we cease to be human.

However, do not think this applies only to a great institution like the Newberry Library. It applies  to all institutions. Libraries are a part of our culture and civilization. In the Dark Ages,  civilization was preserved by collections of manuscript books in monastic libraries, most of which  were smaller than the smallest of our libraries.
In the past few years, we have seen the breaking up and dispersal of two great botanical libraries,  one in Europe, and one in North America. In France, the fine private collection of Arpad Plesch,  built up over many years in the south of France, was sold at Sotheby’s auction house in London in 1975 and 1976. Even the three auction catalogs of this fine collection are collector’s pieces today.

A few years ago the library of the New York Horticultural Society was sold. It would be some consolation  to know that it had been sold as a collection and was available elsewhere. It was not and is not. Most  of it was sold piecemeal and the bulk of it went to European buyers. Its dispersal has diminished the  botanical and horticultural resources of the United States and we cannot afford that. It is no longer  possible to build up such collections as these again. During a fall festival some years ago, a time when  the Arboretum attracts many visitors who do not normally or regularly come, a man came into our library  and walked as far as the entrance to the reading room, stood for a few seconds on the steps, looked  around and said in a loud voice to his wide lagging behind him, “Nothing here but books!” and turned on  his heel and walked out again. I often wondered if he walked into the Arboretum and said, “Nothing here  but trees,” before he left.

Books and gardens. They make a happy combination, appealing to the love of knowledge and the love of  beauty. The botanic garden and the library have always been civilizing and peaceful oases in a turbulent  and threatening world. Neither exists by chance or is maintained by neglect. Let us then, like Candide,  “cultivate our gardens,” but let us not forget to cultivate our libraries. In the end, gardens as we  know them today would not exist if it were not for libraries.

Green line


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Why I am a CBHL member