How Does Your Library Grow?

April 16, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Karen Kinglsey in the Garden Library in Jones Hall A rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein once said. Maybe so, but roses have their secrets, too. But where to look for them? The Garden Library is the logical place to start.

Just last month, Stephen Scanniello, New York author of A Year of Roses and Climbing Roses, visited the library and perused two rare books--Monographie de la Rose et de la Violette (Paris, 1804) and The Florists Directory (London, 1810).

It seems there have been and still are volumes to be written about roses. The Garden Library, elegantly located on the third floor of Jones Hall in a glass-walled room with highly polished wood floors, is housed in the Southeastern Architectural Archive.

The Garden Library, open to the public, is a project of the New Orleans Town Gardeners, which founded the library in 1983 and gave its collection to Tulane in 1986.

By donating the library to Tulane, the New Orleans Town Gardeners, an affiliate of the Garden Club of America, opened up the collection for research and study.

"They want people to come and use the books," says Karen Kingsley, professor of architecture, who for the last year and a half has served as acting curator of the architectural archive and Garden Library bibliographer. "That's the whole point of giving it to the university, so that people have access rather than it being in somebody's home."

The New Orleans Town Gardeners continues to support the library, providing funds for purchases and stewardship of the collection that today includes more than 1,800 volumes. In an effort to attract garden aficionados, the New Orleans Town Gardeners also hosts events at the library such as the reception planned for May 6 for members of the Southern Garden History Society.

Kingsley welcomes to the library amateur gardeners, people doing research on gardens and anyone with a curiosity about flower arranging, landscaping or what kind of roses or camellias to grow. "It seems to me that there's a lot more material here than people know exists."

Kingsley, with assistance from a student worker, is overseeing the ongoing inventorying of the collection, ensuring that all its holdings are listed on Voyager, the Tulane Library online catalog. She's also filling gaps in the collection, especially of garden books by Southern women writers.

"We want to be extremely strong on the South," says Kingsley. "Anything French is useful as well because French books were being used in the early years. The French were a big influence on gardens."

Along with rare books, including the first Louisiana garden book, J.F. Lelievre's Nouveau Jardinier de la Louisiane (New Orleans, 1838), the collection has books with practical, up-to-date information about growing plants and flowers. It also contains bound volumes of publications such as the Bromeliad Society Journal.

Then there's the early 20th-century seed catalogs with beautiful illustrations, pressed flowers in scrapbooks and color slide photographs of major Southern gardens. The collection, while concentrated on the Southern United States, also contains books on Japanese, English and French gardens. Garden and landscape history is a relatively new field emerging from the shadows of art and architectural history. Gardens, naturally, present different challenges to researchers and scholars.

Gardens are ephemeral, constantly changing physical entities, renewed often with new plantings and buffeted by wind, droughts, flooding and pests of all kinds.

"Gardens aren't like buildings that stay for a long time," says Kingsley. "So it's difficult to write a history of gardens when they disappear or they change or there is a freeze and everything dies."

Landscape historians know about 19th-century gardens because of journal writers such as Martha Turnbull, who kept meticulous records of the 28- acre formal garden she had planted at Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, La. But Kingsley is interested in more than large, famous gardens. She'd like to expand the collection with personal journals and visual records of little city gardens, too.

A garden today in the Garden District or Uptown or Old Metairie is not the same as it was years ago. But a photo or sketch or journal description can preserve information about what the garden was and how it has changed. If Kingsley increases the visual-record archives of the Garden Library the way she hopes to, then, she says, "If anybody ever writes a history of gardens in New Orleans or the South, they've got material to look at."

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000