Plant Talk

Volunteering Among the Many Cookbooks of the Mertz Library

Posted in Inside our Collections on December 24, 2020, by Paul Schmiege

Paul Schmiege is a volunteer in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library.

Photo of the Stinking Rose cookbook

The Stinking Rose Restaurant Cookbook

Some people become volunteers at The New York Botanical Garden because of their love of plants. In my case, I became a volunteer because of my love of books. Our home is so filled with books that to this day I am only allowed to buy new books if I promise to read them from cover to cover before they go on a shelf!

My first visit to the volunteer office involved the usual picture-taking for an ID, and filling out volunteer paperwork. I was thrilled to learn that there was a need for a volunteer in the library conservation lab, and shortly after getting properly registered, I was off to the top floor of the Watson building and into the conservation lab to meet with Kelsey Miller and Olga Marder. My education into caring for books began.

I was informed that the library had received a cookbook collection from former curator William Buck. The collection numbered some several thousand books, pamphlets, brochures, and recipe clippings containing hundreds of thousands of recipes in a whole range of languages and cooking styles. There was only one problem—a major one. Before they could be catalogued and shelved, they needed to be cleaned.

Photo of the Practical Mushroom Encyclopedia

The Practical Mushroom Encyclopedia

Cleaning is a lengthy process. All used acquisitions or donations first need to be disinfected, debugged, and vacuumed clean as a precaution. This is done by freezing the books at -40 degrees for three days. In fact, the ground floor of Watson has a room with a dedicated freezer and vacuum system just for this initial stage. After that, the boxes of cookbooks were brought upstairs and became my responsibility. Every book, pamphlet, and piece of paper needed individual cleaning. I had my work bench near the sink, a spray bottle of water and alcohol solution prepared by the conservation staff, and an unlimited supply of cleaning cloths. I was trained in carefully applying the solution and wiping the books down. “Wipe down the covers; wipe the outside binding, wipe the edges of the books—away from the spine, not toward it!—and don’t forget to wipe the inside front and back covers either,” they told me. So with iPhone, earbuds, wiping cloths and cleaner, I spent my days in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. And what days they were!

You might think that spending six or seven hours a day cleaning books would be boring, but if you could see the range of these books and the utter beauty of many of them, you would understand how much I enjoyed my work! Each day brought a new surprise:

  • Jam Session: A Fruit Preserving Handbook by Joyce Goldstein
  • Pizza: How to Make and Bake More Than 50 Delicious Homemade Pizzas (a round book shaped like an actual pizza!)
  • Peppers of the Americas by Maricel E. Presilla
  • The Beekeepers Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile
  • The Stinking Rose Restaurant Cookbook by Andrea Froncillo with Jennifer Jeffrey (all about garlic!)
  • Deep Dark Chocolate: Decadent Recipes for the Serious Chocolate Lover by Sara Perry and Jane Zwinger
Photo of Cooking with Herbs: The Flavor of Provence

Cooking with Herbs: The Flavor of Provence

I could go on and on. In fact, my phone is filled with pictures of the cookbooks I loved. I was even able to find some of them to add to my own library (in spite of the rule in my house!).

As time went on I was taught new skills: how to renew a binding; insert a leaf of a book that had come free; wrap books and pamphlets with mylar protectors when they needed added protection; and (for the most delicate books) how to make boxes which would hold them safely when they were shelved.

The Garden is a wonderful place to volunteer and a great pace to explore! I found a niche in the library and an enormous collection of books I would never have imagined to find there. I urge you to come and see it (just as soon as we are open again), to volunteer, and to discover your place in this special natural oasis.

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