Stanford University
Globe of the Earth

Stanford celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Branner Earth Sciences Library

BY Miles Traer
ClockJune 19, 2015

A group of students, faculty, and alumni stood around a long table adorned with brightly colored maps drawn over two centuries ago. They had gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections. Some maps showed California as an island floating off the coast of North America, while others were streaked with bright splotches of color and ink – the first geological maps ever created. While looking over the collection, one observer whispered, “It’s incredible that we have these here.”

The Branner Library is one of the most extensive Earth sciences libraries in the world. It currently holds hundreds of thousands of books, periodicals, and scientific articles, and over 100,000 maps covering the globe (along with maps of other planets and even fictional worlds). The library’s history reaches back to its namesake, John Casper Branner, the first faculty member hired at Stanford University as a professor of geology and the university’s second president.

“Every time I tell a story about the school, I always start with Professor Branner. He left us an amazing legacy with this library and influenced the way our faculty and students study and learn about the planet on which we live,” said Pamela Matson, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

The library began with Dr. Branner. In 1891, Branner and his wife, Susan, came to the newly founded Stanford University by rail. His library arrived in accompanying freight cars. The original collection was housed in a room next to Branner’s office, and people checked books out by signing a piece of paper tacked to the door. The part-time secretary in charge of maintaining the collection was a young mining engineering student named Herbert Hoover, later the 31st President of the United States.

In the following century, the library expanded.

“As the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences has become more interdisciplinary, so has the library,” said Julie Sweetkind-Singer, the head of Branner Library. “We now purchase materials on alternative energy like solar and wind, agriculture, soils, land use, water, climate change, hazards, and food and water security.”

Three people
Michael Keller (left), Ida M. Green University Librarian; Julie Sweetkind-Singer (center), Head of Branner Library; Pamela Matson, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

The library continues to serve as a hub of scientific information. And as books and information have gone digital, the Branner librarians have pushed hard to curate the materials needed for today’s research agendas in addition to curating digital datasets.

“We understand how the physical objects have been so important, especially in the field of Earth sciences,” said Michael A. Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian. “And we also understand how important the digital advances are. They are linked. They are not separate universes. They are all part of the same library. So the Branner Library is everywhere any of you turn on your computer and access the information curated over the past century.”

One of the distinguishing contributions of the Branner Library is the Stanford Geospatial Center, which provides support to every school on campus and hundreds of students, faculty, post-doctoral scholars and staff who use geospatial information to help explore our planet.

As the digital world expands rapidly, so too has the access to information. “We have gone from an environment of information scarcity a few decades ago to information overload with the Internet today. It is important for the librarians and staff to help people deal with that overload, be it through better search engines (Searchworks), format specific search engines (Earthworks for geospatial data), bibliographic management tools (Mendeley, Endnote), classes for learning how to visualize information, or data collection strategies,” said Sweetkind-Singer.

Branner Library continues to evolve, staying ahead of the information curve and anticipating the needs of future Earth scientists.

As Keller said, “This library exemplifies what we’ve been trying to do in the University Libraries over this past decade in digitization of printed material and media, access to datasets that provide nearly unlimited research opportunities to our scholars, and advances in our own studies, such as the Stanford Geospatial Center. The librarians at Branner have done this brilliantly.”

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