Lenhardt Library Rare Book Collection

Rare Book Room

A selection of digitized rare books is accessible through the Illinois Digital Archive.

The Library presents four rare book exhibitions each year with an accompanying free gallery talk to share these treasures with a public audience.

The Lenhardt Library is focused on developing a collection of national prominence that strengthens its service to researchers and the visiting public. In 2002, the Library acquired a collection of rare books and journals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston.

This acquisition brought to the Chicago Botanic Garden a truly magnificent collection of approximately 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic periodical titles.

Offering a comprehensive perspective on five centuries of research in botany, botanical art, horticulture, agriculture, gardening and landscape design, these volumes present an outstanding opportunity for scholars to chart the evolution of the modern science of botany—uncovering intricate relationships between science and art, botany and medicine, and humans and nature. These works also document U.S. flora at the time of European settlement, tracing the progression of our agrarian society and offering insights into nineteenth-century customs and values, in which science, art, and nature intersect. The collection reflects a relationship between people and the plant kingdom that has been documented since the earliest days of print, when botanists were not simply plant describers, but explorers.

The oldest book in the collection, Historia Plantarum by Theophrastus (d. 287 B.C.E.) published in 1483, details the first known classifications of plants in the Western world. The description of plants and the author's method of using a social network of colleagues for collection became a model for medieval and renaissance botanists centuries later. 

As printing presses and literacy spread across Europe, books by Rembert Dodoens (1517–85) and Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) helped to demystify plants with their methodical examination of characteristics and uses as food and medicine. The Library's collection contains multiple volumes by these authors.

Other highlights in the acquired collection are works on plant exploration—sought after for commercial potential and medicinal qualities, plants ranked second only to gold as the motivation for exploring new worlds. The collection contains works by Linnaeus, who created the system of nomenclature in the eighteenth century that launched a wave of plant expeditions, agricultural technology volumes that trace in detail the evolution of U.S. agriculture, and exquisite volumes of botanical art that are preserved with their plates intact. All too often, botanically significant scientific books with beautiful illustrations are sold at public auction and dismantled for sale as botanical art. Loss of the primary sources in this discipline is evident.

Upon receiving the volumes from Boston, the entire collection required cataloging to make the items accessible to library staff, scholars, and visitors. Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA), the monographs are fully cataloged and half of the historic periodicals are cataloged. Through a Save America's Treasures grant, conservation of an Americana portion is complete. The NEH also funded a conservation survey of the collection and is currently supporting the conservation and digitization of 45 volumes. The Library has plans to apply for future conservation grants in order to be able to further share these treasures with the public through public exhibitions, research appointments, online exhibitions, and digitization.