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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

How It All Began

Library stacks at OSU
The stacks at OSU's Thompson Library.

I had never seen so many books in one place in my life.

It wasn’t my first time in The Ohio State University’s Thompson Library, but I still stopped and stared, just like I always did. There in front of me, rising in six levels on enormous concrete pillars, were the library stacks. Bookcases piled on top of bookcases for a total of eleven levels, six of which were visible from the lobby. I was always awed at the amount of information those books represented—and they were only a fraction of the university’s total collection.

Ironically, I hadn’t been able to find the answers to my questions in those books. I was studying sustainable agriculture, and I wanted to know more about how modern agriculture came to be unsustainable. When I started at OSU as a plant science student, I thought I could easily learn about the history of agriculture by taking a class. I quickly discovered that, out of the thousands of options in the university course catalog, not one covered any aspect of agricultural history. And I couldn’t find a book in all those stacks that really answered my question, either.

That’s why I was in the library on that chilly November evening in 2013. I was on a mission. I headed under the glass-walled stacks to a classroom, where the Undergraduate Research Office was hosting an information session on special collections at the university libraries. A few other students filtered in. Then the moderator welcomed us all and introduced the curators from each of the library’s special collections.

OSU had some cool archival materials, including the records of Admiral Byrd’s polar expeditions and some microfilms of ancient books from a Middle Eastern monastery. But I was most interested in the 19th and 20th century manuscripts. After the informational session, I went over to the curator of that collection, Dr. Geoff Smith, and asked if he had any agricultural materials.

He thought for a moment and said, “We have the Louis Bromfield Collection. There’s a lot of stuff in there about Malabar Farm. It’s open for research, but there are letters and things in there that no one has ever looked at before. A lot of it is untouched.”

What an interesting thought—a collection of historical material on agriculture that no researcher had yet looked at! I didn’t really know who Louis Bromfield was, but I thanked the curator for the information and took his card.

Though I didn’t realize it at that time, that informational session at the Thompson Library was the beginning of my journey into the history of organic and sustainable agriculture in the United States. It has been a long and interesting journey, and it’s not over yet. Once a month, I will share another behind-the-scenes story about the research process that led me all the way from the Thompson Library to publishing my own book about Malabar Farm.

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