Monday, March 17, 2008

A National Treasure Hidden in Plain Sight

On Friday morning I dragged myself out of bed and trundled down I-95 toward Washington for an 8:00 a.m. networking and information session. This Women in Business group (part of the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber) usually doesn't see me because their meetings are always at an hour that does not compute. Being your basic "owl", a.k.a. a night person, my brain does not do well before about 9:30 in the morning. So it is a given that the subject or event has to show a lot of promise for me to not only be there but to have appropriate clothing and a public face on.

This one was absolutely worth the effort. Just off Route 1 in Beltsville sits a 14-story brown block of a building that screams "government architecture." Well off the main road that is otherwise crowded with stores, this chunky edifice seems both distant and foreboding.

Didn't your mother tell you not to judge by appearances? Here's your object lesson. Inside this unattractive container lives and breathes a remarkable collection to delight any lover of nature and history. This is the National Agricultural Library - bet you didn't even know there was one. Neither did I. Not only is this the world's largest research library focused on agriculture, but it is open and welcoming to the public. You can't wander the stacks - the helpful librarians will bring you whatever you want - but you can borrow through interlibrary loan, and you can also access many resources via the Internet no matter where in the world you happen to be. In fact, they have several computers right there to help you with research.

The size of the collections is staggering, and the breadth is amazing. Special collections include rare books, seed catalogs dating back to 1771, original correspondence from Thomas Jefferson, amazing original watercolors of fruits and nuts, and more. The library subscribes to thousands of periodicals - where else could you find a copy of the "Common 'Tater" or "Spudman" for potato farmers? Were you aware that there is actually a standard color system for identifying flowers, complete with color chips that remind you of a paint store? The Royal Horticultural Society publishes the color set, and the NAL includes that in their collection as well. Need a program for teaching nutrition to kids complete with videos? They can help. Curious about llamas and alpacas? They have what you need to raise and care for these gorgeous creatures.

Our group was fortunate to be there the day after a special reception, and saw some truly valuable items in the Special Collections area. A book published in 1539 in Italy, in Latin. An original folio of Carl Linnaeus. A diary of one of the early plant collectors sent out by the Department of Agriculture to travel the world and bring back specimens. And on and on. There is so much, and everyone we met there was not only welcoming and helpful, but they obviously enjoyed their work immensely.

Now here's the sad part - the Current Occupant of the White House (to use Garrison Keillor's term) has proposed a budget that would cut funding for the NAL by 25% in fiscal 2009. If that goes through it would have a non-recoverable impact on the NAL and its collections: They would not be able to buy any new printed books; all subscriptions to printed materials would be cancelled; NAL would not be able to fill the 29,000 requests they receive yearly for delivery of materials that are available only in print; access to most NAL print materials would be available only on site (so if you are a researcher living in California you are out of luck); and access to the special collections - valuable for work against invasive species and in the discovery of new pharmaceuticals - would end.

My husband is a great writer of letters to editors and his elected representatives. Not me - until we got together I was basically apolitical. But this is too much, even for me. Destroying a resource that has taken almost 150 years to build - (Abraham Lincoln signed the act creating the Department of Agriculture and the NAL in 1862) - that is false economy. We're talking a difference of about $6 million. Sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that the total U.S. budget for 2009 is $3.1 trillion (I cannot wrap my brain around a number that big). $20.2 billion went to the Department of Agriculture in 2008, and $6 million is only 3/100 of 1 percent of the Agriculture budget. Pocket change! If my calculations are correct, and Wikipedia has the right numbers, the Department of Defense burns through almost $55 million dollars every hour of every day of the year, and that does NOT include the billions going to Iraq.

Here's a modest proposal: What say we take six and a half minute's worth of DOD's budget and give it to the NAL where it will be used to build rather than destroy?

Rant ended. Please enjoy the treasures of the NAL. I certainly did, and will again. And I'll probably go back for images from time to time - all these photos were downloaded from the NAL's Image Gallery , with the exception of the Amarylis drawing - that's a beautiful holdiay card available from NAL. The sentiment inside is "Peace and Joy". What more could we ask?


Anonymous said...

What a fabulous description of a delightful visit to the NAL! I am inspired to write letters to our congressmen and women to support and retain the funds needed to continue this "peaceful" work. I, like you, find difficulty in attending the early morning Chamber events. I am so glad that I chose this one to pursue. It was an eye-opening and educational experience. I, too, will return to the library. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

Gretchen Overdurff
Greenbelt Homes, Inc.
General Manager

Peg Silloway said...

Thanks, Gretchen - glad you enjoyed both the NAL visit and my description of it. So very well worth that early morning trip around the DC Beltway! Hope to see you at a future WIB or BWCC event.

Mary said...

Oh, Peg. Pocket change is right. This is totally disgraceful and reflects on the powers to be. What burns me is that the history and efforts involved from so many caregivers are being shunned.

I'm glad you enjoyed your visit at the NAL. I didn't know it existed.

My husband used to work in Beltsville off Rt. 1. I'll ask him about it, since he's in electrical construction project management and knows buildings in Balto./D.C.

Hey, I didn't check in with you this week because I seem to remember infrequent posts at the PegBoard ;-)

I'll check in with you more often for a lesson in great writing!


Peg Silloway said...

Thanks for finding time for me in your inhumane schedule - 9 hour days with no break! I'll try not to disappoint, though I doubt I'll ever reach your level of regular and delightful posting.