Right now, the physical location of the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library and Archives in the Hunnewell Building is closed in response to the COVID19 pandemic. The library staff is working remotely and continues to field questions from all over the world.

There isn’t a “typical” type of question that we receive, they really range all over the map, but sometimes we have very similar and specific questions that come in. Recently we received two inquiries from opposite ends of the country, about Arboretum dendrologist John George Jack who is mentioned in Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. In it, Jack is reputed to be able to identify trees simply by the sounds of their leaves in the breeze: “Hornbeam, honeysuckle, Lombardy poplar. Ah—a folded Transcript.” We haven’t yet been able to find another description of Jack’s uncanny tree identification abilities, although I suspect they really were that keen. We do know what Nabokov meant by the “folded Transcript.” It was the Boston Daily Transcript, a popular newspaper of the period.

The Horticultural Library and Archives serves up “information” of many types, in many forms, to many different people. Our staff of two, library head Lisa Pearson, and library assistant Larissa Glasser, field inquiries from around the globe and right at the Arboretum, and provide “information concierge” to discover answers in our extensive archival and print collections.

Among our frequent patrons are the Arboretum staff, in particular the curation, public programs, and institutional advancement departments. Staff members are often looking in our archives for information about our institution, whether it be our infrastructure, history, plant records, or staff papers. They are also regular users of our floras (studies of plants from a specific region) and plant monographs (studies of a specific species or genus of plants). We also help our dedicated group of Arboretum volunteers, who make use of our services extensively for answering questions, preparing reports, creating policies, and planning events.

Harvard faculty, students, and affiliates use our in-house collections, as well as borrowing from our circulating collection. Anyone with a Harvard ID can borrow books from our library. Over the past several years classes from other Boston area institutions of higher learning have come to see us as well. We have hosted classes from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the Tufts Museum School, Boston University, and the Boston Architectural College. We also have an art class from the Brookline High School that comes every year to learn about botanical illustration. Faculty questions often have to do with landscape design and cultural landscapes, art, and culture, in particular as it intersects with temperate woody plants. Students are often looking for information about specific trees or families of trees, or about our Olmsted-designed landscape.

Researchers, both university-affiliated and independent, reach us both online and in-person. Their inquiries can range all over our holdings, from plant records of all sorts, to personal papers of our directors and staff, to garden, landscape architecture, and cultural landscape studies, to the history of the Arnold Arboretum. Initial inquiries sometimes lead to on-going research relationships with some scholars, and we pride ourselves on offering personalized assistance in navigating our holdings.

Our library is open to everyone, and we welcome Arboretum visitors, many of whom learn about the existence of the library from our greeting staff in the Visitor Center. When they come up to the library often they are just interested in looking at our space. We use their visit as a chance however, to engage them and help them explore our in-house and online holdings. By conducting a “reference interview,” librarian-speak for the process of finding out what our visitors really want to know, we can guide them to the resources that best meet their needs. Often these visitors are looking for horticultural information such as propagation, tree care, or pruning, or for information in specific species of trees that they can apply to their home gardens. We also maintain a small curated children’s book collection and they are popular with families during a visit to our grounds.

When we are open again, we encourage everyone to pay us a visit. We are excited to introduce to all the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library and Archives has to offer.

The Horticultural Library and Archives is open from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday, but its physical location will remain closed to the public until further notice. Visit us online anytime.