A turf library at your fingertips

Photos Courtesy of the Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center.

The Turfgrass Information Center at the Michigan State University has the largest collection of turfgrass articles, books and other materials in the world. Through its outreach arm, the Turfgrass Information File, the center can provide access to even the most arcane and rare documents.

Here are examples of recently indexed scientific topics listed on the TGIF site: development of a genomic microsatellite library in perennial ryegrass; glyphosate tolerance mechanism in Italian ryegrass; rethinking the contribution of drained and undrained grasslands to sediment-related water quality problems; a new method to quantify the impact of soil carbon management on biophysical soil properties; evaluating aeration techniques for decreasing phosphorus export from grasslands receiving manure; and antioxidant responses of radiation-induced dwarf mutants of bermudagrass to drought stress.

Those were only the first five academic papers listed in the “What’s New in Turfgrass Research” link on the TGIF site, culled from journals such as Plant Disease and the Journal of Environmental Quality. Are you looking for more hands-on, management-oriented articles? How about information on a long-defunct periodical, such as The National Groundskeeper, which had a brief lifespan from 1927 to 1933 before succumbing to the Great Depression?

According to the center’s project director, Pete Cookingham, TGIF features over 136,000 indexed items from over 2,800 periodicals, 350 of which it monitors regularly to mine records for its collection. These articles exist in the physical collection at MSU, and can be acquired online through TGIF.

There are articles and books from all over the world, and many green-related associations and organizations allow their publications to be accessed.

It is regularly utilized by turfgrass scientists and facility managers around the world. The center’s philosophy is similar to any library’s—to acquire and allow access to information—but this is focused on the science and management of turfgrass and its related fields.

Michigan State University students are hired to search for and index turfgrass information resources from all over the world. Top left: The symbol of the Turfgrass Information Center is now known throughout the world.

“Any science can’t progress unless it has a very good handle on the work that has been done before,” Cookingham points out. That goes for turfgrass management, too. He gives the example of a facility manager who wants to determine the efficacy of a particular chemical. That manager can go to the TGIF database and locate field test information from around the world. That would allow him to make an informed decision and identify which chemical to use and at what rate of application.

Cookingham says the center was set up in 1984, using the funding and momentum from the U.S. Golfing Association to get started, but the impetus could be found much earlier. “That goes back to Jim Beard in 1961,” he says, referring to the still active turfgrass scientist who was at MSU from 1961 to 1975 and at Texas A&M from 1975 to 1992. Beard had been a collector of turfgrass information from his earliest academic life, encouraging the MSU library to also start a significant collection. That was the primary reason that the center was located at MSU.

In 2003, Jim Beard and his wife Harriet donated the collection, called by TGIF “the finest personal compilation of turf-related material in existence,” to the center. That included a copy of his classic “Turfgrass: Science and Culture,” still the foremost reference book in the field. Among other notable donations were those by O.J. Noer and other early turfgrass scientists, entities such as the USGA Greens Section and corporations such as Scotts and Toro, some of which also have contributed funds to the center’s endowment. That endowment now has over $3 million, Cookingham says, and acts as a cushion in case the library’s budget should falter.

In addition, the center now boasts many corporate and association supporters. The center charges subscription fees to users of the TGIF online service. Currently, 55 universities are signed up on a yearly or perpetual basis. Rates can vary and are negotiable for some businesses and organizations, particularly if they become information sharers with the library. Members are also sent the center’s newsletter, “The Sward,” which is full of turfgrass collection updates and is a glimpse into trends in the industry.

Cookingham, a librarian with an academic and working background in parks, notes that about 80 percent of the subscription fees go into the endowment and are tax-deductible for the donor. About 20 percent goes primarily to pay for the MSU students hired to search out new turfgrass items and enter them into the system. The full-time staffers of the center are paid by the university.

Pete Cookingham, project director of the Turfgrass Information Center, has focused on finding and digitizing even the most obscure articles and books.
The Turfgrass Information File Web site is quick and easy to use, and indexes over 136,000 items.

Not surprisingly, it’s a huge job locating and obtaining all the articles, books, newsletters, dissertations, scientific papers and any other sources of turfgrass information. Once an item is found, it is entered into the TGIF search engine digitally in full text format, physically brought to the library and scanned into the system in PDF format or simply indexed as to where the physical copy can be found, always mindful of copyright laws.

The example of the defunct The National Groundskeeper illustrates the lengths the library will go to acquire rare materials. The library had some back issues, Cookingham says, but had to search the world to find every single issue. Once located, the issues were brought to the center, scanned and then returned to the owners if they wanted them back. Much of the science in the periodical is outdated, but “the history and science of turfgrass management” is an important area of interest to the industry, and it is now available for viewing. The information and photos of golf course architecture, for example, could be valuable to contemporary renovators. The cartoons from some of these old texts reflect themes still in debate today.

A digital record is thus created, an abstract written or copied, and every item is indexed under a criss-crossing index system that would allow a subscriber to find it by using a number of topic headings. A search for an article on vertical mowing, for example, might be found through topics such as the grass species, equipment operation, aeration techniques and any other link the library workers can devise. Surefire access is the center’s goal.

“Ninety-eight percent of our users never set foot in the door and know us only on a computer screen,” Cookingham says. The search base is a licensed commercial engine, modified for this particular use over the years, and it is surprisingly easy and quick to use. Some information will always be hidden from the public—information that is copyrighted or proprietary to a company that wants to restrict use, for example—but the center estimates that 33 percent of its collection materials were accessible through the Internet database as of 2007. The rest can be copied and mailed, obtained through interlibrary loan, or someone can walk into the center’s stacks and physically look at material. The database does include items not in the collections, just as the collections contain items not in the database.

“A lot of this stuff is pretty obscure,” Cookingham points out, but is relevant to the day-to-day research, management or history of turfgrass. And, an effort is being made to not only digitize precomputer materials, but also to connect users with the latest information coming out of scientific and trade periodicals. They try to get “full text” access, which means users can go directly to the article. The International Turfgrass Association is an example of an organization that encourages its members to put their research on TGIF, because this works both ways. As more resources are available online, the more the association’s members benefit from having ready access. Every week there is an automatic check of the hot links on the TGIF site to make sure they are still viable, and the center relies on organizations to keep up their own Web sites and archives so that information flow will be continuous.

Cookingham notes that an information center such as this is particularly important for turfgrass people, because the industry is divided into sectors that don’t always connect or communicate with each other. The golf course industry, parks and recreation, sports turf, sod farmers, academics and researchers, plant breeders, consultants, landscapers and irrigation or soil specialists don’t have an umbrella organization that allows networking or an easy flow of information. The Turfgrass Information Center gives them a common place to exchange information and ideas.

“The science underneath it is all the same stuff,” he says, and that can be accessed right here. One goal in making this information easier to use is to accumulate enough money in the endowment to discontinue subscription fees. That would truly make this an information superhighway paved with turf.

As it is, even the center’s public Web site is full of useful information and samples of the collection can be accessed at The TGIF search engine can be found at, and can be accessed with a subscription.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.