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This Library Has Deep Roots on the Farm

By Brian Norris
April 5, 1999

Next week (April 11-17) is National Library Week, and one of the world's most special libraries has "Agricultural" as its middle name. The National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Md., is the world's largest library on the subject.

NAL is part of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific arm, and the library’s links to scientific research are as plain as the views from its windows. The towering, 14-story library building looks west toward the labs and research fields of the largest of ARS' 100-plus research locations--the 7,000-acre Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

When President Lincoln established USDA in 1862, he noted that its mission would include "to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture."

Accordingly, the first U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture, Isaac Newton, established an agricultural library in which "the most valuable works would gradually accumulate by exchange, gift, and purchase, forming a rich mine of knowledge."

Since that time, NAL's knowledge media have shifted from paper and ink to computers and cyberspace. Its clientele, once mainly U.S. scientists and farmers, now is global.

This "mine of knowledge" is no musty accumulation gathering dust on the bookshelves. NAL handles 220,000 requests a year from scientists, teachers, government officials, farmers, business leaders, students and others around the nation and the world.

The NAL treasure trove extends over 50 miles of bookshelves, with 3.3 million books, reports, databases, artifacts, audiovisuals, periodicals and other items. Growing by upwards of 130,000 accessions each year, the library has materials in about 75 languages.

The computer age has brought NAL new ways of doing business, including sending out most materials electronically. An extensive web site, offering access to library staff, products and services, currently receives 11 million "hits" a year. The web address is:

Scientific contact: Pamela Q.J. André, director, ARS National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5248, fax (301) 504-7042,