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Up front: Research librarian Linda Oestry

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - Her long, slender hands smooth over the yellowing pages of books. Inside a cool room with plush carpet and stately chairs, the old books sit open on the table in the room's center. They line the walls and continue into a back room where row after row wait for her notice.

The smells here are of old paper and glue, of books printed hundreds of years ago. But what's inside them still matters.

And it's her job to search and know them.

Linda Oestry wears a long-sleeved blue shirt over her yellow turtleneck. Despite the heavy June heat outside, it's cool inside the rare book room in the Peter H. Raven Library at the Missouri Botanical Garden. After nearly 20 years, the research librarian knows it will be, and just where the thousands of treasures here wait, from the first edition of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," to the brightly illustrated book documenting the plants, animals and sea creatures of Brazil in 1648.

But she never knows what requests she'll get each day, or from where. People e-mail and call with questions, looking for information from all around the world.

A few years ago, a college student came to see her.

"And she said, 'My professor said I need to read Oranges and Peaches.'"

Oestry was quite sure she'd never heard of that. The young woman didn't know the name of the author and couldn't offer any other clues.

As she tells the story, Oestry picks up an old book from the middle of the table. "Do you think it could have been 'On the Origin of Species'?" she asked the young woman.

"And she said, 'yes!'"

Oestry laughs.

Like with law, the classifying and naming of plants are based on precedent, and much of the world's botanical history sits here, just down the street from the lush Missouri Botanical Garden.

Oestry's job, or part of it anyway, is to search the pages of history here for answers that still matter to the living world outside.

Hidden Treasures

The library, just down Shaw Boulevard from the garden, started with a collection of horticultural books from Henry Shaw, the garden's founder. Now, according to the garden, the library holds more than 200,000 publications and 6,000 rare books.

With a staff of nine, plus numerous volunteers, the library is a research facility, which includes more than 3,000 digitized volumes of work. Inside the special collection is a guide to farming practices written in 1474, plus many other treasures.

While Oestry never really imagined herself in a library, her background in paleobotany and love of problem solving would soon make her a perfect fit for the job.

And Oestry's two children, 11 and 13, have noticed their mother knows quite a bit. "I seem to have an answer for everything they ask," she says.

But more than really knowing everything, she knows where, and how to look for information. "It's a little like bits of puzzles and how you put the pieces together," she says.

Often, people call with requests that send Oestry into the stacks, searching for the first time a name was used for a plant or some obscure detail that will affect every other detail that comes after it.

Sometimes, what they need is more immediate.

Once, she got a call from the emergency room at Barnes Jewish Hospital. A school bus had broken down on the side of the road and the kids all chewed on some plants they found there. They were hallucinating.

"And they wondered if we had any idea what they had been chewing on," she says.

She did.

"If I don't know the answer, I usually know where to find the answer," she says.

Peter Raven, president emeritus of the garden, has known Oestry from the beginning of her time at the library, where he says about 85 percent of all public information about plants is collected and kept. Oestry's background in botany helps her with her job now, he says, and she does a fabulous job with both reference end and the collections part of her job.

Part of Oestry's time is spent pouring over catalogs and searching the internet for new publications. She also shares works with other libraries around the world to make sure the garden's library is as complete as possible.

Mary Stiffley, an interlibrary loan specialist, has worked with Oestry from the beginning, too, and says Oestry's background has made a big difference in Stiffley's own job. Oestry is patient as she searches for answers, Stiffley says, and knows all the tools for her search.

"She just knows where to go," Stiffley says.

Adding computers to the library, which happened when Oestry first started, helps, but also means it's much easier for people from all over the world to call or write with questions. And they do.

"It's like having pen pals everywhere," Oestry says.

Handy Linda

Recently, before the library was officially dedicated as the Peter H. Raven Library, an electrician came in to put a light above the new sign. As he worked, he dropped something into the soffit, leaving a large hole.

The dedication was scheduled to happen soon, and Oestry noticed the man worrying about what to do.

"And I said, you know, I know something the color of that paint."

She returned with a manilla folder, scissors and tape, and after a few moments, had patched the hole so that it wasn't noticeable at all.

After that, she was named an honorary member of the maintenance department.

Oestry does read, when she's not taking her kids to the symphony or soccer or piano or violin. Usually it's nonfiction. She gardens, loves travel and has kept in touch with many of the people she's helped over the years.

And she gives the tours at the library's Rare Book Room.

"It's truly a treasure trove, our rare book collection," she says, then begins a tour, lifting the old books up and smoothing her hands over yellow pages as she shares a history that is still very much alive today.

Up Front

This is the second in an occasional series that will profile people who normally work behind the scenes. Many readers will have seen them or will be aware of the work they do. But these aren't the folks who normally have their stories told.

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