Getting geeky at the National Ag Library

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My plant geek friend John Peter Thompson offered to arrange a tour for me of the National AgriculturalNal4300
Library’s super Special Collection, so how could I say no?  I’ve written about the Library previously, and so has Barbara Damrosch, because their funding is in such grave danger (after years of flat-lining).  I think my snarky title for that earlier post was "U.S. sees no need to teach people to grow food," and that applies especially to poor farmers in developing countries with no Internet access. With budget cuts, the library will stop mailing how-to-grow-food pamphlets to them, as they once did to Eliot Coleman when he was a gardening newbie.

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So in the chilly, hermetically sealed confines of the Special Collection, with its 15,000 rare books, 200,000
catalogs, and posters, I feasted my eyes on some of those catalogs and posters, plus wax fruit, fiber samples and some big ole’ books.  When we stopped to see the 1509 "Tract on the Benefits of Herbs," John Peter stepped up to translate the Latin for us (yes, he’s THAT geeky).  We saw the first known illustration of corn, from 1541, in the photo left.  My point is it was very cool stuff, even to this non-history buff.

So I asked the staff what else the Special Collection is good for, besides cool tours and history books, and here’s a sampling of their many examples:Nal2300

• Finding heirloom fruits that will do well today.  There used to be thousands of varieties of apples grown in the U.S., not the handful in the stores today. The Pomological Watercolor Collection has helped researchers of heirloom fruits, and the seed catalogs provide illustrations of heirloom fruit and vegetables.

• The Animal
Parasite Collection spans 100 years of animal parasitology research, including original
line drawings and photographic records of animal parasites with descriptive
indexes.  Kinda helpful in researching food safety issues.

• And across the street at the Ag Research Center they’re researching rice
that will thrive in this new era of increased CO2.  Germplasm stored
there dates back 150 years.

Abraham Lincoln started the the National Agricultural Library in 1862, in
middle of Civil War, coz he thought food was important.  Isn’t it still?!

11 COMMENTS

  1. This looks like a great resource, especially since Americans are rediscovering the benefits of growing our own food. Where does one donate to this organization? Do they have a grassroots campaign on facebook or other social networks?

  2. I’d love to visit the Ag library some day. And I’ve often wondered why we don’t grow as many varieties of potatoes either.

  3. It is a very fair question but not one to be decided on the sex of the presenter. What matters is who will attract the most viewers. Gertrude Jekyll is popular because of the quality of her work: nothing else. I lay claim to the distinction of being a third generation feminist, because my grandfather was a keen supporter of the suffragette movement. But all he and my mother ever wanted was equality. I certainly do not criticize the University of Greenwich for awarding two honorary doctorates female garden designers – and none to males, so far.

  4. It is a very fair question but not one to be decided on the sex of the presenter. What matters is who will attract the most viewers. Gertrude Jekyll is popular because of the quality of her work: nothing else. I lay claim to the distinction of being a third generation feminist, because my grandfather was a keen supporter of the suffragette movement. But all he and my mother ever wanted was equality. I certainly do not criticize the University of Greenwich for awarding two honorary doctorates female garden designers – and none to males, so far.

  5. Oh I’m SOOO jealous! I went to college at U of MD (Natural Resource Management) which is right down the street (the infamous Route 1 which Jack Kerouac used to go between North Carolina and NYC featured in On The Road) and the first time I went in there, I went in for a couple of references (pre-internet!) and spent over 6 hours lost in the stacks reading. I never did get what I originally went in for. I can spend A LOT of time in there. It’s an awesome library.

  6. Although it may be accurate to say there have been as many 10,000 apple varities in existence throughout world history, the most available commercially in the U.S. was around 800 at the time of the Civil War. There are now about 30 varieties considered commercially viable, but you could count on two hands the number that are actually in wide circulation.

  7. Ed- One could say there is an infinite number of apple varieties (or a very large number) because they don’t come true from seed- so in Western China where the apple tree is from, they are native and there are all sorts of varieties- most of which we may not really find too tasty. So thanks for the clarification – I would assume you, as I, would like a few more varieties on the wide circulation market?

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