A series of posts from our volunteers …

Karissa Adams

My time as a volunteer with RBGE began in January 2019, when I was studying Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh. The course had an optional work placement and, after writing a short statement about what I would hope to achieve from the placement, I was chosen to complete my 10 weeks in the RBGE library.

The purpose of the placement was to catalogue the rare duodecimo collection – books which are 20cm or smaller in height – in order to create searchable records on the library catalogue. As excited as I was to be appointed to this task, I couldn’t help but feel nervous and slightly out of my depth since I didn’t have a botanical background, I’d never worked in a library before, and I couldn’t understand most of the Latin featured in many of the texts. However, the staff at the Library are some of the kindest and most helpful bunch of people I’ve ever met (and I’m not just saying that because they might be reading this!), and I felt comfortable asking them anything I needed to, no matter how silly a question it may have been.

The best part about this placement was that each day was different. Every morning I would go downstairs with Lorna or Graham to bring up a fresh stack of books to catalogue and I never knew what I would find. Many of the books in the collection were rebound in the 1960’s and so they have unfortunately lost their original bindings, but this often just added to the surprise of what may be inside.

Sometimes I’d open a book to find some plant specimens …

… or the names and bookplates of previous owners, making them feel immortal just for a moment.

Gorgeous botanical illustrations and book bindings popped with vibrant colours

There was even a surprise guest appearance by a famous rabbit

Photograph of book that includes the title page from "The Tale of Mr Tod" by Beatrix Potter with an illustration of Peter Rabbit

I enjoyed coming across botanical illustrations or publications by women, such as Anne Pratt and Jane Loudon because they did fantastic work at the time but were seemingly forgotten. I was so interested by Jane Loudon that I wrote my final university essay about her because of how important her books were in making gardening accessible to women, and how much (often uncredited) work she did in helping and promoting her husband’s career.

Photograph of the title page of Dodoen's Herbal, 1586

My absolute favourite book overall however was the 1586 edition of A New Herball or Historie of Plants, a herbal from 1586, originally written by a Flemish botanist called Rembert Dodoens. This particular edition has been translated into English from French, which had been translated from the original Dutch text. Although the book itself was fascinating, I was most intrigued by a lengthy handwritten rhyme found inside that involved a lot of squinting and deciphering to figure out!

I’m embarrassed to admit that I never realised how extensive the Library’s Rare Book collection was until I started my placement, but I’m so glad that I ended up with RBGE because I’ve learned so much and have been lucky enough to continue volunteering with them. It’s felt rewarding to help catalogue material in order to make it more accessible and I’ve loved writing blog posts for Botanic Stories, which has also been a new experience for me since I don’t often feel comfortable sharing writing with others. Unfortunately, due to work commitments (and a global pandemic!) I haven’t gone in for a while now, but I’m hoping to eventually return and help out some more when I can.