Behind the Scenes at the Library: Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Category: Reading

This month we are continuing to explore the important work of Scotland’s library services by taking a closer look at the little-known Library and Archive at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The library has its origins in the collection of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (now the Botanical Society of Scotland) which was gifted to the Garden in 1873. The collection now includes more than 60,000 books  the earliest dating from the 15th century  as well as more than 4,000 journals, a large collection of British and international nursery catalogues and a significant collection of botanical art, looked after by four Library staff and the Garden's Archivist.

In 1964 the Library  and the Garden's Herbarium of more than 3 million  moved into a new building, enabling RBGE staff and researchers from around the world to consult the collections in a purpose built space for the first time.

We spoke to the library and archive team at RBGE to find out what life is like in the garden library.


What do you love most about your library?

The people; the range of visitors, including many from overseas, and the staff who carry you along with their enthusiasm for all things botanical but also the people who helped to create the library and who feature in the stories behind the collection


Tell us something we don’t know about your library.

For many people, the fact that we have a library comes as a surprise! However, we do and the earliest printed book that you’ll find here, an anonymous  Latin 'Herbarius' printed by Johann Veldener (c.1485), was once owned by James Sutherland, the first Royal Botanist in Scotland.


What’s your favourite book and why?

With over 60,000 in the collection we couldn’t come up with just one but we’ve narrowed it down a bit:

The 1683 Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis by James Sutherland is the first catalogue of plants held in one of the fore-runner gardens of what is now the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; the inscription at the front refers to the best gardens in Europe at the time and apparently ours "far surpasses most of 'em".

One of the rarest books in the Library is our copy of Anna Atkin's Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, one of the first books to be illustrated using a photographic process, and an incredibly time consuming one at that. The 'sun pictures' of the seaweeds have to be seen to be believed.

And finally, Poisonous Fungi by John Ramsbottom. Barnaby Richards explains it all here


What is the strangest enquiry your library has had?

Perhaps unsurprisingly we tend to get lots of general gardening enquiries, most of which we pass on to our Horticulture team. These included a telephone call from someone who was worrying that their 120 year old aspidistra was looking a bit sick, someone looking for information about the sexual behaviour of a strawberry and someone wanting information about the Ulay plant that provides the oil for the well-known skin care products…


Describe a typical day in the RBGE library. 

Unpredictable! We are a people-focussed service and so you never know who will walk through the door next and what they will need. That also applies to our collections - we’re still in the process of cataloguing them and so surprises still turn up - a few scarce (possibly unique?) late nineteenth century African newspapers was January's highlight.


Excluding your library, what’s the best library you’ve ever been to?

Again, we struggled to narrow it down to one, so here’s our top three:

- Vancouver public library. It's a beautiful circular light and airy building surrounded by bookshops and cafes.

- Closer to home, the Mitchell Library has extremely helpful staff, wonderful collections, excellent exhibitions and not a bad café (there’s a theme emerging here, i.e. we do love a nice café!).

- And last but not least we love our local public libraries despite one of the team being locked in theirs as an 11 year old!


More information about the collections and using the Library and Archives, which are open to the public, can be found on the website.

Information about RBGE publications can be found here, including the special publication to mark the 50th birthday of the new RBGE building: 'Botanical Treasures: objects from the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh'. 

Images from RBGE and flickr creative commons:

Vancouver Public Library by maziar hooshmand

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