A Cook's Garden

A Precious Resource At Risk

Farmers worldwide depend on the National Agricultural Library, in the Abraham Lincoln Building in Beltsville.
Farmers worldwide depend on the National Agricultural Library, in the Abraham Lincoln Building in Beltsville. (National Agricultural Library Photos)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Farmers are a self-sufficient lot, but they don't get very far without centuries of knowledge behind them. If you don't learn the trade at Daddy's knee, you have to learn it somewhere, and as the number of farmers in the United States has dwindled, so have the troops of agriculture extension agents who once advised them.

One thing we do still have is the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, signed into being by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It is the greatest agricultural library in the world. Through its document delivery system, its vast collections have long been available to other libraries all over the country and around the globe. It is the hub. And in no small way, it has helped build the farm my husband has tended for the past 30 years. His file cabinets bulge with material gleaned through AFSIC, the library's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.

Another presidential pen may soon bring this buzzing network of information flow to an abrupt standstill. Flat-lined for years, the National Agricultural Library's budget is slated for drastic cuts in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The cuts could end the acquisition of new printed works, endanger the preservation of its special collections, halt document delivery and turn a national library into a local one. Unless Congress votes to restore the money, a farmer or researcher will soon have to travel to Beltsville to investigate a new soil amendment, study an old crop rotation scheme or gauge the progress of an invading weed.

Won't all this knowledge soon be digital? Not soon enough. That's a worthy but expensive goal, unlikely to be accomplished in my lifetime, let alone by October. Many agricultural resources have been digitized, of course, although they are not always available free. Interestingly, AFSIC has seen no slowing in requests for print information. Many of these come from developing countries that are well-equipped with Web access but short on information resources.

A library is a lot like a seed bank, in which the germ plasm of the world's plant varieties is preserved for future generations. Without this rich diversity of old seeds to draw on, the breeding of new plants capable of meeting future challenges can't be guaranteed. In addition, the seeds must be grown out from time to time to test their viability and to keep them adaptable to present conditions. The same is true of books. If no one reads them, puts their contents through the paces of real life and uses them to cultivate knowledge, the future will see a poor harvest indeed.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company