Hidden behind one of the gift shops at the Brookfield Zoo, in what was once exhibit space, is a library devoted to zoology. As in many older institutions, the zoo library was never formally founded but evolved from small scattered collections in staff offices around the park. The collection has been centralized for about thirty years, though there is still a satellite site for the veterinarians and another containing the zoo's archives of maps, brochures, and other documents. The main collection was only recently cataloged by the current librarian Carla Owens.
Last Friday the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library toured the Brookfield Zoo Library as a part of our in-service training day. Each year during the month of December, we visit another library either to get new ideas to help us run our own library or to learn about the work of different types of libraries. In the past we have visited the Morton Arboretum Library, the conservation lab at the Newberry Library, the John Crerar Library at the University of Chicago, and the Marion E. Wade Center, which is devoted to studies of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their contemporaries, as well as visiting other public libraries.
The Brookfield Zoo is a special library run to support animal keepers, researchers, and volunteers at the zoo. On any given day, zookeepers and researchers enter the out-of-the-way library to find information about their species, often asking the librarian for help. These clients have numerous grant-funded conservation projects that require finding detailed studies from serials and monographs. Many also work from their offices using a collection of electronic resources acquired and maintained by the Library. This is what you'd expect in a zoo library. What surprised me was service to volunteers. The zoo has hundreds of docents and other volunteers, many of whom get rigorous training and have continuing education requirements. Because the docents have to write papers, they too need library services, which Owens and her half time assistant provide. To facilitate the volunteer training, Owens has created a wiki from which the volunteers can obtain and contribute information.
Being a special library, service to the public is limited. People wanting to use the collection have to make appointments. Owens and her assistant also answer telephone questions from the public, some of which ask how to donate exotic animals to zoos. Because Zoo policy does not allow for the accepting of unregistered animals, the librarians have information on contacts with animal sanctuaries that can accept or place the animals.
When asked questions about the library, Owens often broadened the query and gave an answer about the zoo. Library policies and operations are integrated into daily zoo work, and she seems to identify closely with the zoo mission. Based on what I heard her say, she is a zoo employee first, running the library for the good of the zoo and international wildlife conservation. She is also co-author of the new zoo history.