The Story of CBHL: 1969-1976
by R. Henry Norweb*
This year (1976) in the United States we are immersing ourselves in what is called our Bicentennial Year. It brings forth a revering of all the fact and fiction of our country’s past two hundred years, a length of time that in terms of our history has hardly been long enough for us to emerge from our swaddling clothes of colonialism.
Yet even within this perspective of our much abbreviated span of existence, there are brash young upstarts and one is the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries which has yet to celebrate its bicentennial month if one may mix metaphors. As we join you here today, we are frankly amazed at the good fortune that has come our way in less than 200 months of existence and we run the risk of developing our own nostalgia of fact and fiction to justify the honor we are now enjoying.
Fortunately for you, however, our life span is still so short that our past does not yet have the patina of history and our founding members are all alive with keen memories. So today I am forced to stick to facts as I recount the events that led up to us being together today.
Actually CBHL existed in spirit long before it was formalized for there has always been a personal affinity among the true lovers of fine horticultural and botanical literature. This affinity is certainly not unique to our country. It is world-wide and generally, for reasons of poor communication and geographical barriers, it is fragmented. This fragmentation was as marked in our country as anywhere else, with book lovers in one area enjoying close association, but having little contact with persons of similar interest in an area as close as 500 miles away. In fact, I can think of one example where groups with the same interests but located on the opposite banks of the same river had little or no contact.
It would be nice to say that the breakdown of this isolationism came through a massive upsurge of intellectual thirst for knowledge and the birth of the ability to write a good letter, an art that still remains virtually unexplored in our country. I fear instead that the change came about through some of the more prosaic developments that have occurred since World War II, the most important being inexpensive direct dial long distance telephone, jet travel at greatly reduced air fares and a vast network of efficient if unsightly super-highways. Out of these changes, the signature on a letter became a voice that laughed and had expression and soon the voice became a person met at an airport and the person later, a travelweary friend stopping in by car to rest, but always to talk books.
Books, in turn, somehow always seemed to have problems; what to collect, how to use and how to care for — to name a few.
It was a desire to discuss these and other problems that brought the friends together in Boston at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1969. The participants were mostly librarians and represented, directly or indirectly, the major holdings of horticultural books in the northeastern quadrant of the United States. Aside from a formal program of informative speakers prepared by the Society’s library committee, the group had no organization, but was sufficiently inspired by the meeting to agree there should be another similar gathering the following year for the express purpose of establishing an association of horticultural and botanical libraries. All agreed that a need existed, but what to do and how to do it were unresolved. As Mr. Gordon W. Dillon expressed it so well in his closing remarks:
… we as a group, grope our way through a jungle of undescribed problems and unrecognized challenges. It is not that we cannot see the forest for the trees, as the saying has it; rather it is that we, as individuals, can no longer see forests, trees, flowers or gardens because of a veritable blizzard of printed words and published books which threatens to engulf us all. As one member of this small band of pioneers, caught in this blizzard, I must confess that I have no more idea of where we go from here than do any of you.”
The meeting closed with an agreement to meet the following year at the Hunt Botanical Library in Pittsburgh and that, in the meantime, a small committee would study the areas of potential future development of the group.
The committee did its task well and was prepared to make recommendations when the group met in 1970. The group had grown in the intervening year and now represented major book collections from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast. The recommendations were brief and to the point; have a very simple organization and devote maximum effort to being a forum for the exchange of ideas, the discussion of mutual problems and the development of cooperative programs of benefit to the membership. Debate and two days of thought, as well as a series of interesting meetings, followed, after which at the closing session the group agreed to become the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries. It decided the governing body would be a secretariat of three. Mrs. Ruth Schallert who is here today served as a member of the first secretariat.
This rather simple form of management continues today with only a few changes. To satisfy legal requirements, the secretariat has now become a board of directors with three members serving staggered three year terms and to this group has been added a secretary and treasurer who theoretically serve at the pleasure of the board but, in fact, hold the positions as long as the persuasive powers of the others can convince them they should loyally continue to face the myriad of knotty problems that come their way. All serve without remuneration.
More important than the organization are the activities that hold the membership together and generate their continuing support. CBHL publishes a Newsletter through which members are advised of significant events in other institutions. The news items can run the gamut from the announcement of a display to the description of a missing book or an important accession. Each member organization may, if it wishes, provide a list of duplicate titles from its collection which is then circulated to all members. This has proved to be a very worthwhile service. All business transactions resulting are handled directly between the buyer and the seller with CBHL taking no part.
There is an annual meeting of the membership usually lasting 2-1/2 days. These have been held in cities where major botanical collections exist, usually in the United States, although one particularly rewarding session took place in Toronto, Canada. At each gathering there is a business meeting and a varied program of subjects of common interest. Workshops on the care and repair of fine books, preservation techniques, talks on garden literature and possible cooperative ventures are typical of the items covered.
In this role of an information exchange center and gathering ground, CBHL has evidently served a need. Membership is open to institutions and individuals on a worldwide basis and has grown steadily from the small band of pioneers who met in Boston in 1969 to 37 institutions and 84 individual members today. CBHL still has much to accomplish, the membership is primarily professionals and we have not been particularly successful in attracting the knowledgeable amateur book collector. Likewise, we are mostly Americans with a smattering of Canadians who make great contributions to the organization. In the future we can hope to be a truly worldwide council. Perhaps this week is the start. We know while here we will learn and we know we will be with people who love books and who have problems with books. Likewise, we are obviously with friendly people. This, after all, is in essence what the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries is.
*Note: This paper was delivered at joint meeting of Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries and Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, London, England, on April 26, 1976. Mr. Norweb was at at the Holden Arboretum, Newton, Ohio, at the time this talk was delivered.