There’s more to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens than 45 acres of cultivated plants.
As part of its mission to educate about plants, gardens and the environment, the BBG boasts the largest public horticultural library in the United States. Librarian Hope Long calls her territory “a hidden treasure.”
Free to the public and open seven days a week, the Gardens’ library is a member of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative, allowing patrons to check out and return books from other libraries in the system and providing public use computers and free internet access.
The facility shelves around 7800 books, 1000 of which are geared to children, over 60 periodicals and magazines, books on tape and DVD garden series, and a teacher resource focus with lesson plans. Librarian Hope Long is facilitator for the monthly Thyme to Read book group, leading discussions of books relating to nature, gardening, food and the environment.
The only JCLC system library with a specialized collection, the BBG Library has been enhanced in recent years with the addition of an Archives and Rare Books Room developed by archivist Jason Kirby.
A bit of a bibliophilic Indiana Jones, Kirby came to his current position along a somewhat winding road. Initially studying science with a plan to attend medical school, Jason instead taught science for a few years before going to work for the Birmingham Public Library’s Central branch in 2000. Finding a logical link between his love for science and the art of book preservation and conservation, Jason worked on his own time with the BPL’s then preservationist and took additional classes in the specialized techniques of preserving and repairing old books, manuscripts and maps.
“When I took a part time position at the Botanical Gardens Library I never thought that I would be starting a botanical archive,” he says. “I needed a second job because I wanted to buy a house, and I knew that I could pick up botanical knowledge because of my science background.” Working two days a week at BBG and three at the Central Library, he furthered his education by attending evening Master Gardener classes after regular work days.
Exploring a “junk room” adjunct to the Gardens’ library, he began discovering “treasures hidden all over the building,” from a book published in 1676 to rare plant fossils and vintage garden club yearbooks. The junk room found new purpose as the Rare Books Room, and, under Jason’s stewardship, now houses 300 rare books related to gardening. It is one of only two dedicated rare books rooms in the county library cooperative.
Kirby’s continuing education, aided by access to a database of every library in the world, now focuses on determining what defines a rare book in the botanical world, from age to scarcity of copies in print.
“The old hand sewn books were meant to last,” he explains. “It’s easier to repair books produced before 1880, when acid was added to the paper making process to speed up labor intensity. Leather bound books represent an art.”
At once sources of both fascination and frustration, a collection of almost 100 old garden club scrapbooks dating back to the 1920s provide an invaluable local history of gardening in Birmingham in the 20th century. “Scrapbooks typically had the poorest paper, almost worse than phone book quality,” Jason says. He is beginning the process of digitizing and eventually posting online the fragile pages, now stored in archival acid free boxes. “It’s amazing how many garden clubs operated here, and the scrapbooks tell a unique history. Several of the scrapbooks are almost solidly pictures of photographs of women in hats receiving and presenting awards.”
In addition, the BBG Archives has a collection of WPA scrapbooks compiled by legendary garden director Thomas Brooks, minutes of the Birmingham Zoological and Botanical Society from the 1950s, Farmers Almanacs and seed catalogues over a century old, and 400 yearbooks from sixty area garden clubs.
Herbaria plant press books give a glimpse of a once hugely popular but largely lost hobby. One 1905 example features pressed plants growing in Alabama at the turn of the last century.
Japanese wood block prints, the oldest dating to 1832, and an embroidered silk wedding gown and samurai warrior doll on loan from former Rotary International President Glenn Estes, add an expanded educational component to school children visiting the Japanese Gardens at BBG.
Hope Long lures visitors to her library by “commandeering the hall for an art gallery.” Exhibits of art, always available for purchase, change every two months and feature flowers, nature, animals and landscapes.
“Volunteering in the library is a great way to learn by osmosis,” Hope says of the more than 30 volunteers who assist the library’s three member professional staff.
For more information, or to donate to the archives or volunteer to work with the BBG Library, contact Hope Long at 205-414-3931, email firstname.lastname@example.org., or visit on the web at www.bbgardens.org/archives. Library hours at the Gardens are Monday-Friday 9-4, Saturday 10-4, and Sunday 2-5.