ELISA mini-quiz: Lorna Mitchell, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


Your name:  Lorna Mitchell
Library:  Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Job Title:  Head of Library, Archives & Publications

How did you become a librarian/what was your career path?
I originally studied Biological Sciences at Napier University and, by the end of the course, it was clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist; what I was cut out for was less obvious! I spent some time in the Careers Office and found a leaflet on the Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship at Robert Gordon University; that sounded interesting and so I applied and, to my amazement, they said yes.

On leaving RGU I was lucky enough to get a job as an Assistant Librarian in the Library at the Natural History Museum in London. From there I moved to Queen Mary, University of London to be their Natural Sciences Librarian and then to Brunel University as Assistant Director for Academic Support.

In January 2013 I took up my current post which seemed to offer the opportunity to bring all of my previous experience together. It also offered the chance to come home to Scotland after more than 20 years in the Big Smoke!

Did you need any specialist training for your current role?
My time at the Natural History Museum gave me a good grounding in managing special collections and so I didn’t need any specific training for the library side of my role although getting to grips with another new area of literature brought the usual challenges (I’m still trying to get my head around botanical nomenclature!)

What makes your library/department unique?
The Library at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is Scotland’s national collection for botanical and horticultural resources. In addition to the 70,000 (ish!) books, the earliest of which dates back to the 15th century, the collection includes many unique items including original works of art, manuscripts (letters, diaries, etc) and some very unusual objects, e.g. bits of a Spitfire that crashed in the Garden during the 2nd World War.

The Library is also unique in terms of the relationship between our collections, the RBGE Herbarium and the Living Collection (i.e. the gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan). The connections between these collections and the staff that manage them create a unique resource for researchers from a wide range of disciplines.

What is your favourite aspect of the job?
My favourite bit of the job is probably working with the RBGE staff – their enthusiasm for what they do is infectious and their creativity is inspiring. One example of this was a “small” exhibition that we put together for International Women’s Day in March 2017 – so many people came forwards with fascinating stories of current and past women at the RBGE that the exhibition had to be expanded and a much larger exhibition is now planned for 2018.

I’m also very lucky to work with our special collections, in particular the RBGE Illustrations Collection which includes works by some of the most famous botanical artists, e.g. Lilian Snelling, as well as by up and coming new artists. Looking out works to include in an exhibition or to show people coming for a visit is always a real treat!

What has been your most complex/funny/unusual enquiry?
There isn’t really such a thing as a “normal” enquiry for the RBGE Library. The nature of our collections and the people that use them tends to mean that we’re often the library of last resort and so all of the easy questions tend to have been answered before they get to us!

The Special Collections can always be relied upon to raise some interesting bibliographic challenges, particularly in relation to tracing the provenance of items in the collection. The inscription in one volume led us on a virtual trail from Leiden to Japan via Indonesia, Berlin and Wageningen!

One of my most embarrassing moments in the Library happened on a day when we were slightly short staffed with the result that I found myself working at the Service Desk. All was well until a visiting researcher asked about getting access to a document on microfiche …

Having located the relevant microfiche (a challenge in itself!) I confidently approached the microfiche reader and then spent the next 10 minutes crawling around it trying to work out how to switch it on. Having finally located the appropriate switch, I loaded up the fiche and turned triumphantly to the researcher who then asked the terrifying question “Can I print from this machine?” I can but hope that the visitor never worked out that the bumbling idiot that she spoke to was actually the Head of the Library!

Thanks so much to Lorna for that very interesting read. If you’d like to take the mini-quiz, or to contribute something else to the site please contact me, the Webmaster


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