Explore The Morton Arboretum's History with New Digital Archive

A 1925 photo of party guests gathered at long tables
Guests pose for photo at Arboretum founder Joy Morton's 70th birthday in 1925.
October 27, 2016

Walking into the Sterling Morton Library’s Reading Room, a visitor is readily presented with a host of resources on botany and horticulture: children’s books on trees, identification guides for oaks, the latest issue of a British gardening magazine, instructions on the best time to prune hydrangeas, and techniques for botanical illustration.

Less visible, yet no less valuable, are the thousands of objects—including archival documents, photographs, rare books, landscape plans, sketchbooks, and artworks—found in the Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections. A drawing of spring wildflowers created by May T. Watts, a long-time educator, ecologist, and environmentalist at The Morton Arboretum, an early photograph of the digging of Lake Marmo, a recording of Ray Schulenberg’s The Story of The Morton Arboretum Prairie Restoration or an Arboretum video featuring the installation of a newly opened exhibit are all part of this remarkable collection. While they can sometimes be viewed in exhibitions, publications, or presentations, access to these unique, diverse, and sometimes fragile special collections has been rather limited… until now.

A new initiative, spearheaded by the Sterling Morton Library staff, allows the public unprecedented online access to these collections. ACORN (Arboretum Collections & Resources Nexus; acorn.mortonarb.org) is a web-based platform for cataloguing and sharing the library’s collections with details about the item's location, place of origin, condition/conservation history, and exhibition history. Equally important, ACORN plays host to thousands of digital images, audio files, and videos attached to the objects and accessible via the website.

ACORN provides several ways of exploring the collections. Web visitors can browse through featured galleries of objects curated by library staff as well as search by date, keyword, creator, and other data points using the robust advanced search. Users can also create their own collection using the site’s “light box” feature. Where library staff and patrons once had to consult voluminous paper-based finding aids and card files, they are now able to easily search the database—and enter new information—from any computer with an Internet connection.

The depth and breadth of the collections found in ACORN is truly astounding; these special resources provide critical information on the history of the Arboretum as well as the study of botany and horticulture. Someone searching through ACORN is able to simultaneously search photographs, drawings, herbals, maps, plans, correspondence, oral histories—more than 32,000 records in all.

ACORN is also constantly evolving. Ongoing cataloguing and digitization efforts by library staff and volunteers expand the pool of resources on a near-daily basis. As more images and information are added, new connections and stories will emerge. Eventually, a researcher will be able to see a photograph of the Arboretum from the 1920s alongside a letter written by Joy Morton describing his vision of the Arboretum followed by an early landscape plan and accompanied by the Arboretum’s current strategic plan.