Royal Botanic Garden’s Library visit

Report by Sarah Louise McDonald, Sheriff Court Librarian

On the 7th of July CILIP Government Information 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. cof

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!


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.








ELISA mini-quiz: Lorna Mitchell


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

‘What if?’ Art Library exhibition for July 2017

Tales of One City

The latest Art & Design Library exhibition poses the question, ‘What if?’

We know that homelessness is not inevitable. We know that together we can end it. In Crisis’ landmark 50th year, Art in Crisis considers the proposition ‘What If’ through the eyes of their clients, with pieces examining the past, considering the present and looking to the future.

To capture these symbolic images, Crisis clients and local photographer Alicia Bruce were inspired by classic Dutch still life paintings and still life photography.

The Art & Design Library exhibition forms part of Art in Crisis’ national programme of public events presenting compelling, original artwork made by artists experiencing homelessness.

‘What If?’ exhibition by Art in Crisis runs from 4 to 29 July 2017.

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Places available for visit to the Royal Botanic Garden Library, Edinburgh 7th July 3pm

There has been a couple of last minute cancellations for this visit on Friday. The visit has been organised by the CILIP Government Information Group but is open to all.

Please contact Fiona Laing to book a place.

The Library at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) houses Scotland’s national reference collection of botanical and horticultural resources with more than 70,000 books, the earliest of which date from the 15th century. During this visit, attendees will have the opportunity to view some of the treasures from the Library and Archive collections, many of which have never been on public exhibition.

The visit will last for 90 minutes and will include tea and coffee on arrival.

Inverleith Row/Arboretum Place

EH3 5LR Edinburgh

United Kingdom

ELISA mini-quiz: Christopher Jones

Your name: Christopher Jones
Library: Currently unemployed. Previous employment in academic libraries at University of Sunderland, University of Manchester, and Preston’s College.
Job Title: n/a

How did you become a librarian/what was your career path?
Redundancy from my role of IT Support Engineer allowed me to refocus on where I wanted to be. I identified the aspects of my IT role that I enjoyed the most (i.e.: providing and sharing information, helping people, conducting research, and resolving problems), those I disliked (i.e.: desk bound, and the general approach of the profession at the time to hoard information (“information is power!”)) and was surprised to learn that a career as a librarian was the best future for me.

Did you need any specialist training for your current role?
Yes – in order to gather the knowledge and skills to facilitate my change in career I studied the MSC in Information and Library studies at The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.

What makes your library/department unique?
Having worked in different libraries I believe the library design/space, staff and customers makes each library unique, since the challenges, and the approaches to meeting those challenges, will always be unique. If someone believes that what worked in one library will work for another then they are being indifferent to their customers, library and profession.

What is your favourite aspect of the job?
I enjoy meeting the challenges of students and staff in a welcoming manner. Each year brings new challenges and new opportunities to be innovative in the delivery of the wide range of library services – and the new ones, too.

What has been your most complex/funny/unusual enquiry?
Most complex enquiry involved research for an academic into the sources of funding for climate change sceptics. It was vital to remain objective in the research while acknowledging the bias of information sources as well as that of the researcher and client. A formal reference interview was applied to fully explore the current knowledge and information need of the client. Diligence and citation chaining revealed many links between authors of peer reviewed articles, their parent institutions, funding provided to those institutions, and links of those providing funding to other business interests. My final report for the enquiry remained impartial and fully referenced. I learnt a lot about the subject matter – a lot more than is generally portrayed in the press and media.


Thanks to Chris for that contribution. If you’d like to take part in the mini-quiz, or have anything you’d like posted on this site, please contact me.


The City of Literature Trust is running a library campaign calling library lovers and users all over Edinburgh to get a card, sign up a friend, make the most of what’s on offer, and get vocal about how great libraries are.

On Monday 26 June 2017, the City of Literature Trust’s ‘Make It Count’ Library campaign will be kicked-off – spanning a four week period that will delve deep into the heart of Edinburgh’s libraries by featuring stories, images and conversations between librarians and writers – ending with the Trust’s pledge to take the words and support received to Edinburgh’s Councillors at the City Chambers.

Inspired by the support and enthusiasm generated by the Libraries Matter campaign run by CILIPS, the Trust was keen to carry this sentiment forward; to harness the overwhelming support and passion for Edinburgh’s local libraries and channel this into creating a tangible and noticeable drive in numbers across library services.

Edinburgh based author Ron Butlin told the Trust:

‘I find libraries even more important than ever. Being able to browse real shelves rather than merely relying on Google is a much more fruitful way of doing research, and library staff are just about the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. Libraries are the enlightened custodians of our culture…we are so very lucky to have public libraries to keep us in touch with the closest we can come to reasonable truth. Long live libraries!’

So, what are we asking library lovers to do? Just three simple things:

  • Get a Card – sign-up to their local library and tag #MakeItCount
  • Get a Book – borrow a book, ebook, CD, or DVD and share it
  • Get a Friend – tell friends, family and colleagues about the fantastic offers on in local libraries

As this campaign is all about the collective effort of Edinburgh’s library lovers and users, the Trust is also reaching out to organisations in the city – literary or otherwise – to get them involved by asking them to spread the message around colleagues and friends, share images online featuring library cards and library books using #MakeItCount and #LibrariesMatter, as well as starting conversations in day-to-day life about visiting and using libraries.

The campaign will run over a period of four weeks, from the 26 Jun until the 24 Jul, with the first three weeks being specifically targeted towards generating online engagement and conversation via social media and the campaign page on the Trust’s website:, when it goes live. The Trust will work with librarians, library advisors, and writers to promote the importance of Edinburgh’s libraries as not only reading spaces, but places to work, learn, and socialise.

Ali Bowden, Director of the City of Literature Trust, says: ‘Libraries are the beating heart of our City of Literature. They are a haven for words that inspire and entertain; places of possibility and discovery that foster a love of literature, strengthening the very foundations of our society. We know that in order to keep them open, funded, and operating as the fantastic spaces that they already are, we need to be seen to be using them.’

Make It Count Action Card

#’s to use and remember: #MakeItCount and #LibrariesMatter

ELISA mini-quiz – Donna Duff

49e77dc1-63de-41e1-a014-0df02da7b1deYour name: Donna Duff
Library: East Lothian Council Library services
Job Title: Senior Librarian – Digital and Adult Services


How did you become a librarian/what was your career path?
I wanted to be a Librarian since the age of 4 when at school in England we visited our local library and I was allowed to date stamp all the books for my class. Throughout school my aim was always to go to University to become a qualified Librarian.  My first foray into libraries was in Glenrothes as part of a TVEI (Technical, Vocational, Education Initiative) scheme when I was 15 and spent a week working in a local branch library.  From that I was offered a Saturday job and then spend a year on a YTS scheme in the central library in Kirkcaldy.  After a spell of working in a consulting engineer’s library in Edinburgh I moved to Falkirk Libraries before going to Newcastle to study for a BA (Hons) in Library and Information management.  Throughout my three year course I worked in West Lothian Libraries as a casual assistant during summer breaks and once qualified worked at the University of Dundee’s Kirkcaldy campus for 12 years before moving to my present post 9 years ago.

Did you need any specialist training for your current role?
Not really but experience I had picked up during my previous roles helped.

What makes your library/department unique?
I think my department is unique as we appear to be one of the few public library services still to have a separate Adult and Junior department who each handle all aspects of that department. I am responsible for the purchasing of all stock, stock circulation, eResources, promotion of the library service, LMS for the adult sector of East Lothian and my counterpart in the Young Peoples service does the same for anyone under the age of 16 living in East Lothian.

What is your favourite aspect of the job?
My favourite aspect is the variety of the work I do on a daily basis – I deal with public enquiries, staff enquiries, publishers, authors and no day is the same.

What has been your most complex/funny/unusual enquiry?
When I worked for a consulting engineering firm I had to find out how much a giraffe weighed as we the engineers working on building the new enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. Recently we also been asked to twin a Library toilet with one in the third world as part of the Toilet Twinning campaign.



Many thanks to Donna for taking part! If you’d take the mini-quiz, or have anything else you’d like posted on this site, please contact me – The Webmaster!