What’s So Special About the Missouri Botanical Garden Library?

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By Julia Seiter, Recorder, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Originally appeared in the May 2009 edition of MO Info, newsletter of the Missouri Library Association

The story of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) Library in St. Louis, Missouri, begins with Henry Shaw, an entrepreneur who built his wealth selling wares on the St. Louis riverfront during the trade boom of the French Colonial age. A keen investor, Shaw acquired much land and built a country home on 80 acres in what is now the Tower Grove Park area in South St. Louis. Inspired by a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew near London, Shaw dedicated his retirement years to building a public garden and park on the land which would grow to rival the greatest of English gardens. As the garden grew, so to speak, Shaw was convinced to build a botanical garden, where facilities for scientific inquiry would stand alongside pleasure grounds. Naturally, he would need a library. Even before the garden opened in 1859, the first book was purchased for this library in 1856. Doug Holland is Library Director for the MBG Library, a truly special library with a rich history. Holland came to MBG with a background in history and archaeology. He gravitated toward historical agriculture while working at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, where he did fieldwork in historic landscape ecology and studied the science of plant taxonomy. He arrived at MBG on a grant funded archives project and stayed on to wear several hats. Holland has worked in the herbarium, the archives, and of course, the library. Holland’s background, as well as his Library Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia, prepared him well for his current position, where he is now in charge of eight full-time library and archives staff and six full-time grant funded scanners.

Early collection development for the library centered on Garden Literature, but since those first acquisitions in the 1880s, the MBG library has found its corpus in plant taxonomy, evolution, and plant geography/distribution. Rising costs of acquisitions have allowed many special libraries to specialize even further and have provided opportunity for collaboration with other institutions to most effectively reach patron bases. New technologies have not only made this possible but also indispensable. For Holland and the MBG, such collaboration has found its home in the digital Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

According to Holland, the BHL is a “digital library project initiated with the goal of getting copyright-free literature in our libraries scanned and online.” Unlike faster moving, high speed sciences such as physics, the study of botany is very much rooted in the old literature. The starting point for nomenclature and description of plants begins in 1753 with the publication of Karl Linneas’s Species Planterium, which continues to be most important in the description and classification of plants. As such, the BHL is a book based digital library of over 31,000 volumes, the oldest of which, Latin Herbarius (1480), was contributed by MBG.

Holland points to the collaborative spirit he and his peers embraced to build the library. In 2004, such notable institutions as NY Botanical, Harvard, the Smithsonian, and Kew in London (where, you’ll recall, Henry Shaw drew inspiration for his own garden), among others, came together to collectively unify their goals and build a consortium of botany/natural history libraries. Holland proudly credits the library communities of these institutions in pioneering this highly successful project, heretofore unprecedented in scope.

Holland’s greatest sense of accomplishment in getting the BHL underway reflects one of our own goals at the Missouri Library Association. Just as the future success of our organization depends on forging partnerships and alliances with fellow organizations, collaboration is also integral to the success of the BHL. According to the website, “…no single natural history museum or botanical garden library holds the complete corpus of legacy literature…However, taken together, the collections represent a uniquely comprehensive assemblage of literature.” As 21st century special librarians, we understand this spirit of collaboration, which avoids duplication of effort, brings together silo resources, and leverages a finite number of sources for funding most effectively.

For more information about the history of the Missouri Botanical Garden, visit An Illustrated History of the Missouri Botanical Garden. A digital library of more than 500 images digitized from glass plate negatives, hand-tinted prints, magic lantern slides, and stereographs from Garden archives documents the creation and the development of the Missouri Botanical Garden.