National Ag Library Tour Invitation

Washington Gardener Magazine is hosting a tour day of the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, MD, for local garden clubs and select guests on Saturday, August 10 from 10am-12noon. The National Agricultural Library is normally open to the public only during regular business hours, so this is a special opportunity for those who work full-time or those who are not in the DC area to travel to town for it. The tour will include a behind-the-scenes look at the library’s special collections. From actual specimens brought back by USDA explorers to vintage seed catalogs, this library is a treasure-trove of garden history and research. If any local gardeners would like to attend this event, they should RSVP with their full names to before 12noon Thursday, August 8. Note that the NAL is a secure Federal property therefore a photo ID and advance registration is required.

If you have been on the NAL tour with us before, Susan Fugate, head of NAL special collections, promises us she will be pulling out some rare materials not seen on any previous tour and will be sharing some digital collection updates. Susan also advises that you bring your checkbook if you wish to purchase anything from their licensed properties as the NAL does not take cash or cards.

 I have gotten a few inquiries asking why visit the National Agricultural Library and what is so special about it? I think the easiest way to explain it is to share with you an excerpt from the DayTrip column we published about the collection in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Washington Gardener Magazine:

Treasures Await

Inside the NAL is a vast collection of resources that are unavailable online. Much of this collection is not readily available from other sources. Some of it is one-of-a-kind and only resides at the NAL. The NAL staff is just at the beginning of a decades-long project to get many of these rare items on the web. It is a painstaking endeavour and federal funding for the undertaking is in short supply. “For over a decade, the NAL has suffered from benign neglect when it comes to federal budget appropriations,” observes John Peter Thompson, president of the National Agricultural Research Alliance — Beltsville. “Without national stakeholders applying pressure for new money, the library has been unable to secure necessary funding. Write or call your Congressmen and send a copy of the letter to the Secretary of Agriculture to urge them to address the inadequate budget appropriations.”

We are indeed fortunate to have this wonderful resource in our own backyard, so to speak, and easily accessible to DC-area residents. While we may think today we can look up anything on Google, it is simply not true. The vast majority of plant research and records is not available anywhere on the Web. A trip to the NAL is well worth your time to get a close look at just a fraction of what research is actually out there in the horticultural world.

Here are just a few of the exclusive NAL collections you can visit in person:

• Over 200,000 nursery and seed catalogs — old and new.

• Tens of thousands of photographs of plants and gardens around the world — some taken by plant explorers along with detailed notations in their travel journals.

• J. Horace McFarland collection of photos and negatives of gardens and plants which includes original art for horticultural books and nursery catalogs his printing company produced.

• Research records of the US National Arboretum; lots of history of those gardens.

• Botanic Garden Photograph Collection; mainly US sites, but some international.

• A full set of the Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

• 15,000 rare books — probably two-thirds of which are on plant sciences.

• Herbals -- quite old and fragile, but useful today for identifying medicinal plants.

• A comprehensive collection of bulletins published by USDA.

• Over 7,000 watercolors of fruits and nuts with a few vegetables in the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection — 1880s to 1914. (Pomology is the science of fruit breeding and production. Did you know that where the Capital Beltway (I-495) cuts through College Park and Beltsville was a vast USDA fruit research orchard, which has now moved to near Kearneysville, WV?)

Established by Lincoln

The library’s 15-story Abraham Lincoln Building is named in honor of the president who created the Department of Agriculture and signed many of the major US laws affecting agriculture. Lincoln’s background as a pioneer farmer on what was then the western frontier and his years as a country lawyer made him a representative of the frontier, the farmer, and small town democracy.

He had a desire to see agricultural research given a central role and greater investment by the government so that farmers using their own labor or hiring labor (i.e., free men) could grow food and produce related goods profitably. He urged more efficient and intensive cultivation in order to increase production to the full capacity of the soil.

NAL was created with the USDA in 1862, and established as a national library by the Congress to be the primary agricultural information resource of the United States. Congress assigned to the library the responsibilities to:

• Acquire, preserve, and manage information resources related to agriculture and allied sciences;

• Organize agricultural information products and services, and provide them within the United States and internationally;

• Plan, coordinate, and evaluate information and library needs related to agricultural research and education;

• Cooperate with and coordinate efforts toward development of a comprehensive agricultural library and information network;

• Coordinate the development of specialized subject information services among the agricultural and library information communities.

NAL is the only library in the United States with the mandate to carry out these national and international responsibilities for the agricultural community.

Scope of NAL Collections

The NAL collections contain nearly 3.6 million items covering all aspects of agriculture and related sciences, and are a comprehensive resource for agricultural scientists, policy makers, regulators, and scholars. The origins of the library’s collections date to the congressionally approved 1839 purchase of books for the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office, predating the 1862 establishment of the USDA itself. The collections date from the 16th century to the present, including the most complete repository of U.S. Department of Agriculture publications and the most extensive set of materials anywhere on the history of agriculture in the United States.

Currently, the NAL initiates and coordinates these exchanges with over 5,000 partners from 106 countries worldwide, accounting for about 70% of all periodicals currently received.

Additional Offerings

In addition to the fabulous botanical treasures in its special collections (only some of which are viewable online at the National Agricultural Library has a treasure-trove of horticultural publications in its collections, which can be borrowed through your local public library or Land Grant University Library (

The Library’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC) ( carries a lot of specialized information on horticulture and on organic agriculture. Mary Gold of AFSIC is one of the Master Gardeners in the library and is happy to assist in answering your questions. The NAL employs about 165 librarians, information specialists, computer specialists, administrators, and clerical personnel, supplemented by about 80 contract staff, cooperators from NAL partnering organizations, and volunteers.

The NAL also operates the National Invasive Species Information Center (, which is an excellent gateway to invasive species information; covering Federal, State, local, and international sources.

So that gives you a little taste of what you'll discover on our three-hour-tour of the National Agricultural Library. I hope you can join us and please do RSVP soon as spaces will fill fast.


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