Royal Botanic Garden’s Library , Edinburgh – Government Information Group visit

Report on the visit by Sarah Louise McDonald, Sherrif Court Librarian

On the 7th of July GIG group members visited the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Library, Scotland’s national collection of botanical and horticultural literature. Scottish Working Forum for Official Publications (SWOP) and Edinburgh Libraries Information Services Agency (ELISA) members were also invited to attend.

The main entrance to the Library and Archive can be accessed via the main entrance off Inverleith Row, though my colleagues and I took a brief stroll through the gardens before meeting Lorna Mitchell, the Head of the Library and Archives, in the Herbarium foyer which set the scene nicely!

The collection houses around 4,200 journal titles and 70,000 books, the earliest of which dates from 1485 and is a record of herbal medicinal plants which belonged to the Regius Keeper. Books were bought at this time by the Botanical Society of Edinburgh but treated like personal possessions so it was common for them to be sold off to supplement members’ incomes. After the establishment of the library in 1873 they were bought, returned or donated to form part of the early collection. It was only in 1964 when the library moved to their current building that the accessions were all housed together, though even now some treasures may be hidden away in offices!

The library and archive supports the staff and students of RGBE in their research; they actively collect materials on botany, floras of different countries, and plant taxonomies amongst others. Many resources are donated or exchanged by former students who send materials from their travels back to Edinburgh.

Lorna showed us a selection of fascinating items including some bound herbaria which had been annotated by 18th century Scottish physicist and botanist John Hope. [Pic 1] His handwriting around the pressed flowers show that they were collected in albums prior to the Linnaeus’ plant classification system’s creation, because he’s annotated the pages with the new names of the specimens at a later date. These items are not only rare due to their historical significance but also the format of the albums themselves as most preserved plants are stored on flat specimen sheets for scientific use. Although the library doesn’t have conservation facilities in-house they regulate the environment to preserve the plant items they hold, and take preventative measures – even freezing items before they arrive and leave the collection to reduce the risk of introducing harmful beasties!

John Hutton Balfour was the seventh Regius Keeper of the RBG and the first Keeper of the Library when it was established. He was a huge advocate of education and the space which is used as the conference room now used to be where he taught. The medical students of Edinburgh would all come through his hands and go on expeditions with him, and he took extensive notes and kept albums full of tickets, hotel bills, and notes on the students themselves.  cof

He often commissioned huge panel illustrations to use during his lecture and would hang them around the room, walking between them and using them like we would use a powerpoint presentation.



Lorna explained that botanists still prefer illustrations as a general rule. Although photography is used to record and document, artists are often found working in the herbarium to record minute details. We saw some beautiful examples of different types of illustration. One extremely rare copy of Botanica in Originali seu Herbarium vivum by Johann Hieronymus Kniphof contains prints made from actual plants which were delicately inked and then later hand coloured.


There are twelve volumes with 100 illustrations in each, and are extremely rare as only one or two copies of these would have ever been produced due to the labour-intensive, expensive and detailed nature of the work. It’s difficult to know the exact provenance of the books as these volumes have been rebound over the years but it is believed this was John Hope’s personal set.


As the collection is so varied in both format and scope it can be difficult to catalogue and make unusual items available to the public, but work is continuing using the open source platform Koha to provide some information to prospective visitors. The key message we took away from the day is that this is very much an active library which should be used, not a room of museum pieces never to be touched! There’s a balance to be struck between conservation and development that the RGBE library tackles daily, but they are very keen to show off the range of materials they have available.

More information on how to visit the RGBE library and archives can be found on their website [1], and in recent years they have been featured on the Scottish Book Trust [2] and 23 Librarians [3] blogs too. Thanks very much to Lorna for showing us just some of the many treasures of the library and archive.





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