On September 4, 2013, we celebrated the 150th birthday of the renowned Arnold Arboretum taxonomist Alfred Rehder (1863-1949). Born and educated in Germany, he joined the staff in 1898, and was soon put to work on the gargantuan assignment of compiling what grew to be a five-volume, 3789-page bibliography of books and articles about woody plants up to the year 1900.
The seed for this project was planted by Abby A. Bradley in the form of a $20,000 gift in memory of her father William Lambert Bradley of Hingham, Massachusetts, who died in 1894. Bradley, who made his fortune in the chemical fertilizer industry, was devoted to the study of trees and his daughter’s gift was to promote the scientific activities of the Arboretum. Arboretum Founding Director Charles Sprague Sargent decided that the donation would be well used to create a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography of woody plants, which would in turn facilitate research activities by the staff. In the age of unlimited connectivity, it is easy to forget that in the days before online library catalogs and databases such as JSTOR and Agricola just how vital the creation of bibliographies and lists of holdings were to promoting scholarship. They allowed access to a library even if the scholar lived hundreds of miles away. Bibliographies did likewise for specific subjects, and even today the literature review is still a valued pedagogic tool.
In 1900, Sargent selected Alfred Rehder to compile what would become known as the Bradley Bibliography. The assignment before him was monumental, and to complete it he consulted every botanical library collection in the eastern United States, as well as making two trips to Europe to visit libraries in ten countries. Rehder also employed consultants who sent additions to the Bibliography for material in languages in which he was not adept, such as Hungarian and Serbian. There is a small mark at the end of citations for which Rehder did not physically examine the piece, but that total is fewer than five percent of the more than 100,000 entries. The first volume was published in 1911 with four additional volumes issued through 1918. Rehder’s work did not go unnoticed—Harvard University awarded Rehder an honorary master of arts degree in 1913 for his work on the Bibliography.
Today you can read the Bradley Bibliography online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) website. BHL “is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global ‘biodiversity commons.’ The BHL consortium works with the international taxonomic community, rights holders, and other interested parties to ensure that this biodiversity heritage is made available to a global audience through open access principles.”
BHL is a bit like a full-text online Bradley Bibliography for the present day. Among the more than 62,000 titles, you can read the books in Charles Darwin’s library, browse volumes from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s rare book collection or make a visit to the Field Museum Library without ever visiting Chicago. What the future will bring is anybody’s guess, but an ever-growing collection of vintage botanical books are available to anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
– Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives