Recently, I was visiting friends in the Chelsea section of New York City. As we were coming out of the subway, my wife pointed to the right and told me, “Get a picture of that.” At first, it didn’t seem remarkable—it was a cherry tree with more than a few blossoms, which is something you’d expect to see in late April. Except it was days before New Year’s Eve.
Photo by Terry Ballard
A few days later, looking out of our dining room window, we saw a bright blossom on our forsythia bush—normally a late March event. Even the most devoted Fox News viewer must suspect that things are not the way they used to be when it comes to the climate.
Clearly, there is a need for solid factual information about the history of humankind’s response to the changing fortunes of our atmosphere. In November 2023, Gale, part of Cengage Group, launched the first phase of its new digital project on environmental science, Environmental History: Conservation and Public Policy in America, 1870–1980. As with many things in human affairs, we can’t know where we are going if we don’t know where we have been.
What the Product Is Made Of
Covering the years 1870 to 1980, the collection consists of correspondence, manuscripts and personal papers, organizational records, letters, newsletters, pamphlets, ephemera, and legal briefs. In all, the first phase of the project contains nearly a half-million pages. It has been in production for more than 7 years and is the result of partnerships with a number of libraries, notably the Denver Public Library, the Institute of Government Studies Library at the University of California–Berkeley, the New York City Bar Association, Yale University, and the National Archives and Records Administration.
A good example of the personal papers component of the product is that of Rosalie Edge, whose papers were provided by the Denver Public Library. She was a pioneering activist in bird causes—so much so that she split with the Audubon Society over its practice of protecting songbirds while encouraging the hunting of predatory birds. Over her long life, she initiated projects that led to the formation of two national parks and founded the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the world’s first preserve for birds of prey in Pennsylvania.
Also from the Denver Public Library are the papers of Velma Bronn Johnston, who lived from 1912 to 1977. She was appalled at western farmers’ custom of rounding up and killing wild horses and burros. Known by the nickname “Wild Horse Annie,” she successfully lobbied for a bill passed in 1971 that outlawed such practices as hunting wild horses from helicopters.
Government reports on land management and other environmental issues were supplied by the National Archives and Records Administration. Similarly, the Institute of Government Studies Library at the University of California–Berkeley provided a broad collection of reports and pamphlets at all levels of government down to municipalities. In addition, these reports include publications from advocacy groups and commissions on a wide range of environmental topics.
A Demonstration of the Collection
On Jan. 3, 2024, I was part of an online meeting to take a look at the product in action. I was joined by Bennett Graff, director of digital archives at Gale, and Kristen Plemon, director of strategic storytelling and client success with the marketing firm PRP Group. Within minutes, we were off and running through the visually impressive site. Graff was a former systems librarian (as I was) and took obvious delight in showing the possibilities of this site for in-depth data analysis. The first thing we see is the graphic table of contents for the collections:
Screenshot by Terry Ballard; used with permission from Gale
This gives the user a sense of the depth of this collection. The first item is the American Bison Society. Graff said that the terms “bison” and “buffalo” are interchangeable, so he showed how the program could track the use of both words over the century that Gale highlights. Another feature was a graphic interface:
Screenshot by Terry Ballard; used with permission from Gale
As the demonstration progressed, I noted how impressed I was with the filtering options to refine a search. Rather than a column of 10-point type along the left side, there were very intuitive boxes near the upper-right-hand area. I suspect that this is easier for the user. It pays homage to a fact I learned as a graduate student in education: Different people have different learning styles. In addition to the wheel shown in the screenshot, there is a color-coded data cloud, with words displaying in their subject areas by size—the largest words showing the most entries. This will be helpful for students who are visual learners.
It turns out that a number of the federal government collections were provided by participating libraries and not by the National Archives and Records Administration itself. Graff said that getting files from Washington, D.C., could be a bit torturous, whereas librarians in their partnering institutions were all too glad to help. He said that the exchange of letters to and from the National Archives and Records Administration stretched back 7 years.
In conclusion, the product does exactly what it set out to do. A researcher can use these pages to chart grassroots movements in support of nature’s well-being and follow them through the processes that led to solutions turning into laws. The second iteration of the product will focus on efforts outside of the U.S.
A Puzzle Brought Up by Bennett Graff
Early in the demonstration, Graff mentioned that most of the collections Gale compiles are based on a substantial holding of scholarly material on microforms. That was not the case in this project, and he was surprised at how much extra digging he had to do. That got me thinking about the nature of this field. Looking back to the late 19th century, there seemed to be a number of related causes, such as animal advocacy, land management, water rights, and climate studies, but they had not yet coalesced into one field of study. To test this out, I went to my favorite place to find answers like this: JSTOR. Limiting by the years in the Gale collection, I found that the term “environmental science” did not show up until after the turn of the 20th century. For the following decades, it was rarely used. There were just a handful of occurrences until the early 1960s, when it became widely mentioned. It is probably not a coincidence that the seminal work Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in 1962.
Two decades ago, I sat through the eye of a hurricane and thought that it would be a one-time event in my life. In the last 5 years alone, I have lived through several more. The sense of timing with this collection could not be more fortuitous for academic libraries, as climate change continues to be a hot-button issue. In the meantime, the blossom on the forsythia bush outside my window is bright yellow. Waiting for spring.