While visitors to the Missouri Botanical Garden stroll among the exquisite floral displays and exhibits, another group might be a few blocks away poring over an equally exquisite first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species or a 250-year-old, hand-colored etching of sassafras. The second group – scientists, researchers, graduate students, and Garden staff – are availing themselves of another treasure of the Garden: the world-acclaimed Peter H. Raven Library.

Situated in the state-of-the-art headquarters of the Garden’s Monsanto Center research building at 4500 Shaw Blvd., the Library is vital to the institution’s mission “to discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment, in order to preserve and enrich life.”

“We continue to fulfill the Garden’s mission by collecting and preserving botanical information,” said Douglas Holland, curator of library services. “Our collection ranges from ancient books to the most recently published literature, increasingly in electronic format, and in dozens of languages.”

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In 2011 the Library was formally dedicated in honor of Dr. Peter Raven’s legacy in science, conservation and botany by the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Board of Trustees. The dedication memorializes the tenure of Raven who transformed the Missouri Botanical Garden in his nearly four decades as president and director.

The Library began as a small collection of horticultural books owned by the Garden’s founder, Henry Shaw. Shaw augmented the collection through his friendships with leading 19th century naturalists, botanists, and other scientists. Today, through purchases and gifts, the collection has burgeoned to more than 200,000 monographs and journals and 6,000 volumes of rare books, including many with full-size plant illustrations important to botanical, horticultural and natural history sciences. The Library is globally recognized as one of the most comprehensive libraries of botanical literature in the world.

“Unlike some fields of science, botany depends heavily upon publications of the 18th and 19th centuries to maintain a stable system of names for plants,” Holland explained. “Since the genus-species binomial system was established with the publication of Carl Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum in 1753, it means botanists must consult over 250 years of books and journals, often on a daily basis.”

The Library, which has a staff of nine professionals and up to 30 volunteers, is a research facility. Its vast holdings do not circulate, but are available to Garden staff, students, and visiting scientists and researchers from around the world seeking to identify, classify, and conserve plants. Those interested in using the collection are encouraged to make an appointment.

Since 1997, the bulk of the Library holdings have been contained on the fourth floor of the Monsanto Center. Books and journals are largely stored in row after row of compact shelves in a room with carefully controlled temperature, humidity, and security. Rare books, such as the first edition, first printing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, are housed in the Rare Book Room, which offers environmental controls and stricter security.

In an effort to protect the collection from wear-and-tear while increasing accessibility, the Library’s scanning staff has digitized more than 7,200 volumes – more than 2.5 million pages – and made them freely available to researchers around the world at www.biodiversitylibrary.org/
The Library collections are divided into two major components: the general collection and special collection. It is fully cataloged and may be freely searched at www.mbglibrary.org

The general collection includes 200,000 volumes of monographs and periodicals; the Library currently receives 800 periodical titles acquired through subscription and exchange. The emphasis is on plant taxonomic literature, current and retrospective, collected in all languages. In addition, there are more than 3,000 volumes of reference works, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, indexes and bibliographies.

The special collection includes rare books and the Garden’s Archives. The Archives is the “institutional memory” of the Garden, located on the main campus at 4344 Shaw Blvd. In addition to items like records of the Garden’s directors and minutes of board meetings, the Archives also include such items as founder Henry Shaw’s personal papers and historical photographs.

The oldest volume in the rare book collection is Opus ruralium commodorum, which dates back to1474. Written by Peitro de’Crescenzi (1233-1320), it is a guide to good farming practices and estate management in rural Italy at the end of the Middle Ages. Another notable item is Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton, published between 1799 and 1807. The work, with its lavishly beautiful, full-color illustrations, has been described as a premier piece of English botanical literature.

The rare book collection also includes a compilation of pre-Linnean works by E. Lewis Sturtevant dating from 1474 to 1753. Sturtevant, a botanist and agriculturist, donated his personal collection of 463 volumes to the Garden in 1892. It has grown to more than 1,000 volumes.

Other notable items in the special collection include:

  • More than 900 volumes by Carl Linnaeus, his revisions, and his students’ works.
  • More than 3,000 post-1753 rare books, including editions of Michaux’s and Nuttall’s North American Sylva;CharlesDarwin’s work in various editions; George Engelmann’s botanical works; and accounts of many pre-1850 voyages and explorations.
  • Research materials, personal papers, and 11,000 volumes of Joseph Ewan, an eminent historian of natural history (purchased by the Garden in 1986).
  • The William Campbell Steere collection of 1,000 titles on bryology (the study of mosses) and about 2,000 pamphlets and reprints (purchased by the Garden in 1977).
  • The collection of more than 600 “books about books,” or works on the history of printing and bookbinding, compiled by Garden volunteer Donald R. Niederlander.
  • A botanical art collection of 7,000 items, including watercolors, oils, sketches, prints, reproductions, poster and manuscript leaves.
  • More than 7,000 maps and atlases.
  • More than 40,000 microfiche items.

Some of the Garden’s rare books are heavily illustrated in color, with detailed drawings that qualify as art. Their beauty and quality led to a 100-illustration exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2004 titled “The Illustrated Garden: Books From the Missouri Botanical Garden, 1485-1855.”