Loving The Lloyd

Loving The Lloyd

The Lloyd Library is a hidden cache of historic resources for modern gardeners.

Full disclosure: I am a librarian. So did I geek out over the treasures hidden in plain sight in the Lloyd Library and Museum at 917 Plum Street in downtown Cincinnati? Yes. Yes I did.

But the modernist façade of this botanical and pharmaceutical library is full of wonders for gardeners, horticulturists, botany and history buffs, and lovers of rare books. The collection includes texts that were written, read, and owned by some of the most influential minds in history, locally relevant records of the biological heritage of our region, and contemporary collections of books and periodicals that will inspire and inform any gardener or horticultural enthusiast with an inquisitive mind.

Librarian and rare books cataloger Betsy Kruthoffer shows me the Lloyd’s oldest work, printed in 1493—an Italian book of herbal remedies written while Columbus was still “discovering” the New World. She shows me an “herbal” owned by Jean-Jacques Rosseau: Dominique Chabrey’s 1678 Omnium Stirpium Sciagraphia et Icones, hand-signed and heavily annotated by Rousseau, often with Carl Linnaeus’s then-new botanical classifications. “Before there were gardening books there were herbals,” Kruthoffer says. “People weren’t concerned about the beauty of their surroundings so much as surviving, and plants fed them and healed them. So a book like this, it’s just utilitarian.” And yet it’s incredibly beautiful: the intricate press of print and woodcut into thick pages, themselves the stuff of ancient plants.

Another treasure is a letter handwritten at Monticello in December 1813 by Thomas Jefferson to François André Michaux, author of the first book on the trees of North America: “… my interior situation among the mountains and great distance from any seaport town is extremely unfriendly to any punctual correspondence with the other side of the Atlantic … read your book on forest trees with great pleasure and received from them much information …”

Being in the presence of all this ancient botanical knowledge has a positively inspirational effect. The sheer volume and depth of a collection devoted to the mysteries of the living world, the thoughts of minds who have wondered before, all of it lends perspective to our place in history and time. It’s a delightful warren of rabbit holes for the serious scholar or the amateur horticultural sleuth looking for pragmatic solutions to problems in the green, growing world beyond the vault that is this library.

The Lloyd Library and Museum is the product of the profession and passions of three brothers, all pharmacists affiliated with The Eclectics, a school of physicians whose practice focused on the use of botanically sourced medicine. Together, they formed Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists, Inc. The oldest, John Uri, was one of the most famous pharmacists of his day. Nelson Ashley, number two, was civic- and business-minded, reputed for his philanthropy, and for many years a co-owner of the Cincinnati Reds. And Curtis Gates, the youngest, was obsessed with books, botany, and mycology. His intellect and wanderlust helped make the Lloyd the marvel it is today.    

When John Uri Lloyd came to Cincinnati for a pharmacy apprenticeship, he brought three books that became the library’s cornerstones: the Bible, George Fownes’ Chemistry, and Edward Parrish’s Introduction to Practical Pharmacy. Following a second apprenticeship and study at the Medical College of Ohio, the energetic young pharmacist was charged with studying and documenting the Eclectic Physicians’ materia medica—the body of substances used in their medical practice. Research necessitated surveying and collecting relevant literature, and the Lloyd Library was born. When Curtis joined Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists, the library took on its botanical focus; after he later left the business he continued to travel the world, visiting book and botanical centers of Europe and sending books and specimens back to John Uri and the library. Curtis' peregrinations and the trust he established, coupled with John Uri’s enduring passion for books and lifelong stewardship, made this library an internationally reputed and unique resource.

During the Lloyd brothers’ lifetime, the library was also a repository for specimens. The mycological collection that Curtis amassed was, at his death in 1926, one of the largest in the world. (It’s now housed at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, MD.) And his countless botanical specimens carried from the reaches of the globe, or collected close to home, went on permanent loan to the herbarium at the University of Cincinnati, housed today in the high, concrete mushroom that is Crosley Tower. Over time, some of the country’s greatest scientific institutions sought to acquire the print collection, but John Uri couldn’t let it go. So on Plum Street in Cincinnati the Lloyds’ beloved books remain.

The 200,000-volume collection has outgrown two previous buildings. Its present, five-level incarnation is designed to protect and preserve, having been erected in 1970 under the direction of former head librarian and civil defense enthusiast Corrine Miller Simons to double as a fallout shelter. In the climate-controlled stacks under concrete ceilings, you feel as though you’re in an ark, and it’s easy to imagine these bunker-like walls preserving the accumulated botanical wisdom of humankind beyond some future cataclysm. Decades of bound journals and time-weathered tomes, gilt leaved and leather-bound, stand neatly arranged. In cages, under lock and key, you’ll find the most ancient tracts, including stacked, centuries-old folios: Napoleon’s 24-volume pictorial survey of Egyptian civilization, for example, or the stunningly illustrated Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, printed and published by the naturalist Mark Catesby between 1729 and 1747.

In the ground-floor public exhibition space, I encounter 300-year-old works of naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) displayed alongside three-dimensional re-creations of her work using specimens and taxidermy. There’s a permanent exhibit on the history of pharmaceutical chemistry, featuring a cold-still invented by John Uri. (Did I forget to mention he was also an inventor?)

The Lloyd Library houses one of the largest collections of botanical illustrations in the world, says its new executive director Patricia Van Skaik, for whom, as an avid gardener and rare book lover, the directorship of the Lloyd is a dream job.

The Lloyd is well known internationally to specialist researchers working in the fields of botany, mycology, pharmacology, herbal, and alternative medicines, but it’s just as remarkable a resource for non-specialists. Magazines, journals, reference materials, and recent works, many focused on plants, horticulture, and the myriad intersections among botany, horticulture, and medicine, line the walls adjacent to the ground-floor exhibition space. You might be surprised at what you find, and where. Some of the more obscure journals on herbs, for example, contain off-the-beaten path recipes for beverages and remedies.

Like any library, it’s a place to seek knowledge, says Van Skaik, but it’s also a place to explore and discover—a place to find answers, but also to ask questions and be inspired. “It’s very experiential,” she says. “We do exhibitions that highlight the beauty of plants, and our historical works are stunning.”   

Librarian Alex Herrlein shows me around the ready reference section near the periodicals. “We have a number of things here for people who have a casual knowledge and want to get a bit more of a background. We have field guides, a section on fungi. Some of these are local, and have a focus on native plants,” he says. He points out dictionaries and reference works on plant names and botanical Latin, a book on botany for gardeners, and a section on food plants, including books on how plants use water, minerals, and light, and on their cellular structure. “It’s bridging the hands-on side of it with the botanical side,” Herrlein says. “You might already work with the plants, but here’s what goes on on the micro level or on the very macro level.”

Reference librarian and museum specialist Erin Campbell greets me at the front desk with a few items pulled from the collection that she thinks might spark my interest: A botanical survey of “North Side Woods,” which is a 1904 catalog of native local plants recorded by former Lloyd Library botanical curator, W.H. Aiken, who worked closely with Curtis Gates Lloyd. “We have an even older one from 1842 that’s in the rare books collection,” she says. The Lloyd is rich with sources on historical garden and plant knowledge. Campbell fields reference questions across the spectrum, including recently for someone designing a 1900s-era medicinal garden.

“We have a recent book called Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way where you can look at what people were doing in 18th century Virginia,” she says. “It’s a book of tricks for people who want to have a retro garden and don’t want to be just reliant on 21st century gardening techniques. There’s a lot here on botany, particularly medical botany, but then there’s a lot of other stuff on horticulture—herbs, fruits and nuts, orchids, roses, conifers, trees.” There’s a whole shelf on green roofs, she says, another on therapeutic gardening, gardening for people with physical disabilities, and even a kids’ section.  

The Lloyd doesn’t circulate books, which is actually a plus, because if you find a book in the online catalog, you can be certain it’s on-site. And then, Herrlein says, patrons are welcome to photograph pages with their phones, a paper-free way to take information away. Van Skaik recommends giving the Lloyd’s small staff of five a day’s notice before visiting to give them time to find materials relevant to your search. “The best thing for us is to have a conversation or email exchange about what you’re looking for so that we can root through the collection and pull out what’s a fit for you.”

The catalog and contact information are available on the library’s website (LloydLibrary.org), and plans call for an updated catalog, website, and digital collections to come soon. Van Skaik is excited about the possibilities in this unique library’s future. This fall, there will be an exhibit on wildflowers in partnership with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the Wildflower Society, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. And, having recently returned from a conference of botanical libraries, many of which incorporate gardens into their facilities, Van Skaik would love the Lloyd to have a garden as well.

The Lloyd Library isn’t going anywhere. How you choose to experience and use it is up to you. As I explore its exhibition space, I overhear Campbell giving a presentation to a group of visiting teachers. “It really just depends on how deep you want to go,” she says. “All you have to bring is curiosity.”

Find it:
The Lloyd Library & Museum
917 Plum Street, Cincinnati OH 45202
Phone: (513) 721-3707

Ever since his grandfather put him to work squashing potato bugs and shoveling compost in a vast organic garden north of Philadelphia, Cedric has loved the outdoors. These days, he squashes bugs for his green-thumbed partner, Jen. His writing has appeared in Saveur, Cincinnati, This Old House, and Belt magazines. He is the Collector at the Mercantile Library Downtown.