The Center for Prairie Studies and the Grinnell College Libraries have collaborated in the installation of two dramatic eighteen-foot tall photographs of prairie plants on the east and west walls of the first floor of Burling Library (south side). Created by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, these photographs portray not only the above-ground portion of the plants but also their astonishing root systems.
The photographs depict Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), one of the signature grasses of the tallgrass prairie, which often reaches seven or eight feet in height,and Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose flower-bearing stalks grow to 10 feet or more. Despite these heights, both plants have even more biomass below ground than above, typical of prairie plants, whose root systems help them survive fire, cold, and severe droughts like the one this year.
Libraries have long had a close connection with plants. Etymologically, the word "library" derives from "liber" meaning "book," "paper," "parchment" and, originally, "the inner bark of a tree." The paper in the books that fill Burling Library was all once plant material. And just as plants carry genetic information that documents the myriad ecological adaptations of their ancestors, libraries are our culture's common repository of observation, thought, and expression over hundreds of years and the field from which new ideas and expressions grow.
We thank Milton Severe of Faulconer Gallery and the Facilities Management staff for their help with this project.