Modern-day bureaucratic wags are wont to call it the "gulag in the sky," but Isaac Newton very likely would be ecstatic about his 14-story brainchild.
When Newton -- not the English inventor but America's first agriculture commissioner -- laid out his ideas in 1862 for a new national agriculture department, he urged that a library be created that would serve as the premier source of agricultural information for the country.
From a modest beginning with 1,000 volumes that year, the National Agricultural Library has grown to become the most extensive collection of agricultural information in the free world: more than 1.8 million volumes and growing.
The library's archives, housed since 1969 in an ultramodern tower at the Agriculture Department's Beltsville research complex, are the U.S. agricultural science establishment's lifeline and its link to the rest of the world.
That is not an exaggeration. Roughly 60 percent of the library's collection comes from overseas sources and much of it is made available to scientists and economists, the chief customers of the library, by a corps of translators that puts the basics into English for easier reference.
Say, for example, that a researcher at Iowa State University is studying hog survival in subzero temperatures. Once past the reality of Iowa winters, he quite naturally might turn to experiences in other cold climes. The Iowa researcher can write or call in to the library for help. Or he can plug into the library's "Agricola" computerized information base and almost instantly come up with a catalog of hog-survival research published in Sweden, say, or the Soviet Union. And if the library doesn't have the research papers -- which it very likely might -- it can tell him where to find the information he needs.
If for some reason it didn't occur to him to ask about hog research in northern Canada, the library might tell him anyway through a regular service that alerts scientists in the USDA and the land-grant universities when new information is available on all manner of agricultural subjects. The end result of this hypothetical exercise might be healthier, warmer hogs in Iowa that could be grown more economically or more profitably, to the benefit of both farmer and consumer.
Much of the library's scientific material comes from the more than 23,000 periodicals it receives each year, almost half of them from abroad. But most of this, like the hogs-and-climate stuff, is so arcane that it is of little use or interest to the general public.
For all that, however, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Secretary John R. Block reported in 1982 that the library was not all that it should be. The panel recommended more services, more funds, more acquisitions -- even with severe federal budget restraints -- to keep the library faithful to Isaac Newton's ideal.
And since 1983, when Joseph H. Howard moved from the Library of Congress to head the agricultural library, the emphasis has been on getting more services out to researchers and coordinating information exchange between federal and university libraries.
But the library's audience is changing, according to public affairs director Eugene Farkas, and it increasingly collects nontechnical data to satisfy the needs of farmers and consumers who call for help. Special collections on such topics as nutrition and aquaculture are maintained by the library.
The library also has a bent for history, which means accumulating as much information as it can about the role of agriculture in the growth and development of the country. The library's rare-book collection, with tomes dating to the early 1500s, contains 8,000 volumes.
Some of it, historical program librarian Alan Fusonie noted recently, is prime material that sketches national expansion from very different perspectives. The library has a stunning collection of early catalogs that depict the commercialization of agriculture and horticulture and its obvious economic importance to the country. One of Fusonie's favorites is the Prince family, the first commercial nurserymen in America, whose Flushing, N.Y., operation began in the 1700s. The library houses almost a century's worth of family business documents that provide unusual insights into the development of their industry.
Among those papers is a copy of the first known nursery catalog in this country, a handwritten brochure put together by founder William Prince Sr. to advertise his wares. Prince's catalog idea caught on quickly and many of the other seed catalog "firsts" that followed are in Fusonie's collection.
"It's a fabulous collection," Fusonie said, "literally tracing the seeds of capitalism in this country." Pun or not, Newton would have liked that.