The Arboretum Library

By: Susan C Eubank

Susan C Eubank has been a librarian for twenty-four years, a botanical garden librarian in San Francisco, Denver and, now,…

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Intern Shakti Maisen cataloging books in the stacks at the Arboretum Library, Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Photograph by Cynthia Vargas

With the rapid expansion of the internet, are botanic garden libraries still active and relevant? Indeed they are! Here is just one of them, serving the greater Los Angeles area.

In the 1940s, the founders of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden followed a long-standing tradition by creating a library in conjunction with an arboretum or botanic garden. California is blessed with four botanic garden libraries staffed with professional librarians. The Arboretum Library shares the state with the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture at San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, Blaksley Library at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and the Research Library at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. The Elisabeth C Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens is the only other such library on the West Coast.

Although the Arboretum Library was originally intended as a staff library, the founders and subsequent library managers quickly embraced the educational value of serving the public. Joan DeFato, plant science librarian (1973-2004), personified that belief. (Joan also served as secretary of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation from the 1990s through 2004.) The Arboretum Library collects, manages, and makes accessible the collective body of knowledge of gardening and plants in all their aspects (plant exploration, medicines, weaving and crafts, plant lore, plant-related fiction, etc) relevant to Southern California. Imagine visiting your local bookstore or public library. How many books on plants do they contain? Even in my downtown Pasadena Public Library or Vroman’s Bookstore, I can easily count the shelves (or shelf) of books on gardening. The Arboretum Library is much more comprehensive than either. Sixty years of directed collecting by all of our librarians, past and present, has resulted in a 35,000-volume collection. One of my predecessors, Jane Wright, donated her collection of herb books including our oldest title dating from 1578. In the last two years, we have received two sets of exceptional donations. One was from an armchair gardener whose love was roses, resulting in what will probably be the largest library collection of rose books in the West. Another donation was from Richard Whitehall, an occasional writer for Pacific Horticulture; he has enriched our collection through his love of books exploring gardens around the world.

A retail website like amazon.com might rival us with its list of titles for sale, but, here at the Library, you can browse the actual stacks and see the books themselves. Unlike multi-story academic libraries with books on plants, the Arboretum Library concentrates all of our collection in a single room. It is easily browseable, and you do not have to buy every book you might be interested in—you can borrow it! Los Angeles Arboretum Foundation members can borrow books just as in a regular public library. In my experience searching for information on the internet and using traditionally published sources, the internet still cannot match the magazine- and book-publishing worlds for depth and authority. I use all possible sources extensively.

Let Us Help You

The Arboretum Library is managed by one librarian (me) who has been working with the public answering their plant-related inquiries for almost fifteen years, including experience at two other botanic garden libraries. During this time, I have fine-tuned my skills for finding plant information, whether it’s accessible on the internet or in other sources. A thirst for plant knowledge, a librarian’s drive to keep seeking, and extensive personal contacts help me serve our customers in ways Google could never imagine. We try to help our customers realize that librarians are not just “question answerers.” We are partners in your quest and are willing to work with you to develop a relationship that allows us to anticipate your needs and create community among those in the Southern California plant world. If we don’t have the materials you need, we are part of a network of more than 60,000 general libraries and over 250 other botanical garden libraries, nationwide, that can help in your quest. We also have two full-time botanical information specialists whose sole job is to dispense “plant advice.”

One of our newest efforts to anticipate needs is an email newsletter where we list our new books, recommend websites, and scan our 300 magazine subscriptions for articles that Southern California plants people might find valuable for their work or their obsessions. We list titles and sources of the articles and encourage customers to use that information when they next visit the library.

Supporting a Community Resource

How does such a specialized library survive and grow in these days of bare-bones budgets in publicly supported endeavors? It is really up to our community. The bulk of the funding for the Arboretum Library comes from Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles Arboretum Foundation, but California is a state in which the plant world is entwined so deeply with our human endeavors that having this kind of library is an immense asset. It’s up to those of us who live, eat, and breathe the wonder of plants and gardens to make this work. We are especially grateful to organizations such as the Good Family Foundation, who made it possible to start adding electronic “card catalog” records to our online catalog. We are just beginning the process of converting our traditional card catalog to an online catalog, so every book is not there yet; you may have to ask for it.

We maintain a wish list of acquisitions for the library on the Arboretum website. If you are feeling generous, there is always something to buy for our community. To help those who are cleaning up “clutter” at home, the Arboretum Library readily accepts donations of plant-related books, magazines, videos, and other educational materials. We may use them for the library or sell them as duplicates to generate revenue for other purchases. We also have many volunteers helping with all the tasks involved in running a library. Come visit us and discover a wealth of resources in this jewel at the Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

If You Should Like to Visit . . .

The Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Garden is located at 301 N Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia, CA 91007, 626/821-3213. Visit the website (www.arboretum.org) for information about the gardens, membership, and volunteer opportunities; the website also offers access to the Arboretum Library’s online catalog. The library is open Tuesday-Friday from 8 am to 5:15 pm, and every other Saturday from 8:30 am to 5 pm.