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50 States of Preservation: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California

February 13, 2017 | By Leah Weinryb Grohsgal

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

Sometimes parched by drought, washed out by floods, or threatened by fire, the area around Los Angeles was in the early 20th century still dotted with farms growing citrus, celery, walnuts, beets, and berries, and ranchers raising cattle and sheep in the hills.  In 1927, Susanna Bixby Bryant, daughter of one of the founders of Long Beach, California, set aside 200 acres of her family’s Orange County ranch to establish the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG).  Bryant wanted to encourage the study and appreciation of California’s wild plants as an oil boom, industry, highways, and railroads signaled changes to come. 

The RSABG, now located in Claremont, houses a world-class botanical library.  With support from NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access, the RSABG Library purchased an environmental monitoring system to provide early warning of fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels that could endanger the collection, as well as archival-quality shelving units and supplies to keep the valuable materials safe and accessible.  Proper storage and environmental conditions are critical to preventing damage to materials, especially rare books dating back to the 1500s and thousands of irreplaceable photographs of California and the West.

“Archival supplies are expensive,” explained RSABG Library Specialist Irene Holiman, “and the library’s annual budget never seems to stretch far enough for materials necessary to properly house and preserve our most treasured collections.”  When the organization received an NEH award in 2016, she said “we were thrilled to know that we could purchase materials we were lacking, as well as materials that were highly recommended in a recent collections assessment report.”

The library is an important repository on the history of science.  It contains 2,200 rare books including herbals, illustrated botanical books, and scientific literature.  The oldest item in the collection is Historia Mundi, a 1525 natural history recorded by Pliny the Elder, and the Library also has several works of the “Father of Taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus.  RSABG’s archives offer 23,000 documents, glass slides, photographs, field notes, and original botanical illustrations.  For example, the 19th- and early 20th- century field notes, diaries, glass negatives, and photographs of botanist Marcus E. Jones document previously unstudied regions of the American West and Mexico.  Artist and amateur botanist Clara Mason Fox lived in Laguna Beach and Silverado Canyon until her death in 1959, and her illustrations depict plant life in the Santa Ana Mountains and Orange County.  The archive also features glass slides and oversized prints of Lustin E. Martindale, a Los Angeles commercial photographer in the 1920s and 1930s.

RSABG’s holdings record the look and feel of the West and California through changes in land use and the rise of industry, preserving irreplaceable images of a natural environment that has been radically altered and making them accessible to the public.  Because of NEH support, stated Holiman, the RSABG is “confident that the work we completed and the work in progress is now preserved and housed in a professional and appropriate manner to be used and to educate future generations.”

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.  Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 2, 2017.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation[at]neh[dot]gov or 202-606-8570.  

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden received NEH support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-233834-16.