An Interview with Axel Borg of the UC Davis Library

I have always loved libraries. As a child in Massachusetts, my mother would take me to our local branch on an almost weekly basis. We would spend hours there and leave with a stack of books each, along with VHS tapes, magazines, and, later, CDs. During most weekends, the library hosted children’s events—readings, puppet shows, and the like. While I giggled along with my three-foot contemporaries, my mother mingled with the other parents. For us, the library was as much community center as anything else.

I graduated from college in 2002, so I suspect I’m part of the last wave of American students to have relied on physical, rather than digital, research during my undergraduate years. Even afterward, term papers long behind me, the Boston Public Library was one of my favorite places. Both the building and the collection were grand in that old Bostonian way, and the library’s set of John Singer Sargent murals elevated it far beyond a mere bastion for books. Later, when I lived in New York, the Morgan Library & Museum occupied the same place in my heart.

Libraries and librarians came to play a more active role in my life again during the research for my book, Napa Valley, Then & Now. The oral histories collected by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library (the world’s first wine podcast?) gave me direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the region’s pioneers, undigested by journalists. Librarians at the St. Helena Public Library and the city's Historical Society assisted me in the selection of images, as well as bygone weather conditions and old investment reports. Critical to the success of my research, these librarians took an active interest in my project, making suggestions and connections that were far more interesting and relevant than any Google search would have supplied.

During that endeavor and in many times prior, the librarians proved equally as valuable as the material they guarded. That is certainly the case with the UC Davis Library and its warden, Axel Borg.

I first made Axel Borg’s acquaintance six months ago, when tagging along on a tour of the library’s special collections. UC Davis’ stockpile of wine books, periodicals, and ephemera is unsurpassed, and Axel delights in its bounty. On that visit, he regaled me with tales of some of his more exotic acquisitions, such as the very first printed reference to chocolate (a theological text that debated whether chocolate was inherently holy or sinful). On a subsequent trip, he allowed me to flip through a Louis XIV-era military treatise that used sunspot observations to predict the quality of future wine vintages.

Axel’s passion is palpable, his enthusiasm infectious, and I am thrilled that he agreed to be interviewed for GuildSomm. My suspicion is that many wine lovers and professionals would assume the Davis wine library is solely for its students, but, in fact, it is open to all. And while the two previously mentioned texts might seem a bit out there, the collection is replete with more immediately useful items. In this digital era, where the volume of available information can almost overwhelm, a great librarian like Axel can serve as both guide and inspiration. In truth, Axel’s role is not dissimilar to that of a sommelier or wine merchant. Like them, he assists interested parties in navigating the complex world of wine and often ends up exposing them to things they may not have found on their own.

Kelli White: What is your title, and how long have you worked at UC Davis?

Axel Borg: Broadly speaking, as the library’s wine and food science bibliographer, I am responsible for building library collections in the areas of post-harvest agriculture, nutrition, and food science. However, my major area of responsibility is grapegrowing and winemaking. I have worked closely with the university’s Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences since its inception.  I have worked at UC Davis since 1988—nearly 30 years.

KW: What did you do before joining Davis? Did you know early on that you wanted to be a librarian?

AB: Before coming to UC Davis, I was a librarian at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. I got my library degree at UC Berkeley and started my career there.

Before library school, I was a commissioned officer in the US Army. I served as an armor officer and spent time both in command and staff positions. I served in Europe, where I spent a year patrolling the East German border before the fall of the Soviet Union. When I decided to leave the army, I thought about getting an MBA, given the management experience I had from my military service, but my love of books won out, and I decided to go to library school instead. While at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to work with agriculture literature, and I fell in love with it.

KW: Tell me a bit about the collection. What is its scope, and what are its strengths?

AB: The collection encompasses everything related to grapegrowing or winemaking. Since the Library of Congress Classification groups alcoholic beverages together, this also includes beer and spirits. This inclusion works since brewers, not winemakers, did most of the basic research on yeast fermentation.

We collect scientific material, cultural material, and historical material at all levels, from the most basic to very advanced material. We also collect in all languages; currently we have 50 languages represented in our wine collection! One of the strengths of our collection is our material on the science of winemaking.

Another strength of the collection is its breadth. In donating his papers to the UC Davis Library, British wine writer Hugh Johnson called it “the greatest wine library in the world.” We don’t have everything, but we have more than anyone else.

KW: When did the library get its start?

AB: My understanding is that the wine library got its start when UC Berkeley’s College of Agriculture started teaching classes here at the University of California “farm,” which later became UC Davis. The real boost came when Professor Maynard Amerine, a legendary researcher in the post-Prohibition era, took an interest in the library. He had a very broad view of the subject and was a bibliophile. In addition to donating his personal library, he sought out other collections and got their owners to donate them to the library.

KW: Any areas in which the library is lacking or you are hoping to flesh things out?

AB: There are a number of titles for which I am still seeking missing editions and languages. For example, we have all of the editions but not all of the languages of Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine. We have the atlas in German, French, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese, but it was also printed in several others.

I am also always on the lookout for early works on grapes and wine. There are several good bibliographies to help with English- and German-language publications. I am working on a bibliography of publications in Italian and have identified almost 9,000 titles. We have a little less than 1,000 titles, so there is much work to do. Most other languages—including, surprisingly, French—lack such general bibliographies, and that makes identifying titles much more difficult. So many titles, so little time.

KW: How has the collection changed since you first joined the library?

AB: The greatest change has been the shift from print to digital. In the sciences, this has greatly slowed the physical growth of collections by drastically curtailing the need for print journals. The transition to online access has also generally made material more available. One caveat is password-protected material; for example, wine newsletters are an important part of the collection, but many of the publishers want to make access dependent upon passwords. That works for an individual, but it is impractical for a university library... All of this is part of the challenge of being a library and a librarian.

KW: What’s a typical week like in your professional life?

AB: One of the wonderful aspects of this job is that I don’t have a sense that I have any typical weeks. The variety of things that I get to do, both as a member of the academic community at UC Davis and as the wine and food science bibliographer, is quite broad and very energizing (sometimes a bit too energizing!). There are also quiet times that I get to spend with the collection, where I can explore and learn more about the areas of grapes and wine.

My duties include identifying and acquiring material for the collection, and I would stress that what I consider to be material for the collection is quite broad, ranging from pamphlets and leaflets, to maps and posters, to manuscripts and archives, to books and journals. I get to promote the collection through talks and tours as well. I get to teach students, faculty, and members of the public how to access the collections. I get to work with visiting scholars from all over the state, country, and world who are interested in grapes and wine. Without a doubt, I have the best job in the University of California system: I get to work with books (I am a bibliophile) about wine (need I say more).

KW: How direct of a role do you have in deciding what the library acquires?

AB: I have a very direct role, yet I am not the only one involved in the decision-making process. As the subject bibliographer, I occupy the primary position in that process. Others in the library who are responsible for considerations such as cost, space, and preservation treatment are also involved. I bring in the context of how the material supports and expands the existing collection to justify costs of the additional material.

KW: How has the digital world altered the library and your job? Do you long for a time before computers?

AB: See above for how the digital world has altered the library and my job. As for computers, I love them. They are a wonderful tool that allows me to carry vast amounts of material in my hard drive and to access seemingly infinite amounts information through the web (although that also requires critical evaluation of that information).

KW: Now that so many answers are a Google search away, has the importance of a physical collection of books and papers increased or decreased? How have Google and the internet age affected notions of expertise and authority?

AB: One of the thresholds of authority that has disappeared with the “internet age” is that, with the ability to publish things on the internet, it becomes much more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Pre-internet, if you were going to publish something that looked authoritative, you needed money or someone to invest their money, and that usually caused some review or consideration prior to publishing. There was still a great deal of trash published, but the cost of publishing [kept] it down a bit. Now all you need is a good programmer or web designer, and you can publish something that on the surface appears great but is in fact nonsense. This requires that the user be much more critical in their appraisal.

Something that I heard a long time ago sums it up: T’aint the not knowing that adds so much to the colossal sum of human ignorance; it’s the knowing so much that ain’t so.

KW: What is the weirdest item in your collection?

AB: There is so much to choose from, but I will leave it to your readers to pass judgment on this one: Amazing Magic Crystals with Powdered Alcohol: Instant Wine, Beer and Spirits. I believe that we are the only holding library in the world.

KW: You recently acquired all of Jancis Robinson’s early notebooks. Tell me about this initiative. Do you have your eye on more such collections?

AB: A couple of years ago, Hugh Johnson approached us about taking in his papers, and we leapt at the opportunity. We already had two wine writers’ papers (Roy Brady and Leon Adams), and this was a fantastic opportunity to build in that area. Hugh facilitated Jancis Robinson’s papers coming to Davis, and we have recently acquired two more wine writers’ papers: Charles Sullivan and Bob Thompson.

Our wine writers’ collections…[have] the potential to teach our winemaking students about writing to sell their wine. They learn how to write scientific and technical papers about wine, but not how to write about their wine from a culinary prospective. Many of them will be in small wineries and will need to write for the consumer. Of course, this kind of writing is not limited to winemakers, and that is the beauty of such a program; it has very broad appeal.

KW: What does the future look like for libraries? For librarians?

AB: My first thought was the song from the ‘80s by Timbuk 3, “The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” It dates me. The way that I see it, as long as there are people, they will be producing information, and that information will need to be organized and made discoverable. That is what librarians do: they connect people to information. That information comes in many different containers including physical, digital, and human. In fact, part of my job includes connecting people to people where information is sought. The challenges are great, but the reward is immense.

Axel Borg at the UD Davis Library

Tours of the Special Collection require advanced booking. To arrange a visit, contact at least seven business days before you hope to visit. Find more information and directions here.

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    I was working as a somm in the early 1990's when I acquired some  bottles from Fountain Grove Winery. Deciding to use the 1938 Cabernets for a wine dinner, I searched for info about the wines.  I couldn't find anything about the wines or winery as it was slightly after post prohibition. I called UC Davis and ended up talking to Maynard Amerine who sent me articles from the library. It was one of the most interesting stories I have ever encountered. The ability to track down information in an age where reference books were scarce and pre google/internet was invaluable. I have held UC Davis and their library in awe since.

    Fountain Grove was founded in the 1870's as a commune by Utopian visionary Thomas Lake Harris who was kicked out of New York for lewd practices. They made wine and advertised it as having electric cosmic properties. The winemaker was of Japanese samurai decent who ended up owning the winery after prohibition and hiring a German immigrant as winemaker. A gentleman named Hans Kornell who went on to found a winery producing well regarded sparkling wines under his name.

    P.S. - The 38 Cabs were spectacular and in great condition even after 50 plus years. I drank the 1936 Pinot Noir a couple of years later with Armand Cottin of Laboure Roi thinking it would be dead but amusing. It was showing great also and blew some Grand Crus away. For a Frenchman to ask to take the empty home was true praise.

  • Axel is absolutely phenomenal. He helped me find the resources that I needed to write my Master of Wine research paper on historical Napa Valley, acreage data during U.S. Prohibition, and so much more. I spent many, many hours combing through publications that I would never have found without Axel's help. Wonderful interview, Kelli. Great to see Axel get this well-deserved recognition.

  • Axel is incredible. One of the most passionate people I've ever met. Nice interview and great recognition!