A series of posts from our volunteers …
My name is Jane Gardner and I am retired. I have lived in Edinburgh for nearly six years and have been volunteering in the Botanics Library for five years. I worked mostly in education, both administratively and teaching.
Through membership of NADFAS I became a “Heritage Volunteer”, joining a group project to clean all the books in the downstairs stacks in the Botanics Library. One of the other volunteers, Laura Gunstensen, was also involved in a project documenting the correspondence of John Hutton Balfour, Regius Keeper from 1845 to 1879. That struck me as fascinating and, after discussion with Graham Hardy, l started my first historical project in April 2016: summarising and recording the letters from botanists sent to J.T.B. Syme (1822-88) as editor of the third edition of “English Botany”, a splendid 12-volume reference work complete with illustrations and “popular content” (medicine and folklore) by Phoebe Lankester. Reading (or deciphering) these letters took me back, for a few hours each week, 140 years to the world of Victorian plant-hunters and I was sorry to arrive at the end of Volume 12.
Next, from January 2017, I shared a project with Laura: to summarise and record the huge correspondence of Harold Fletcher, Regius Keeper from 1956-70. There were many strands: Kew; the RHS; the USA; Logan and others. We had many chuckles over Fletcher’s firm opinions and ironic humour.
Then, from June 2018 until December 2019, I did the same with the correspondence of Sir William Wright Smith, Regius Keeper from 1922-56. He was a less colourful character than Fletcher but I enjoyed going back again to an earlier time, and was excited to come across two “Warrants” for Smith’s employment at the Botanics and the University of Edinburgh that had been signed by King George V!
Lastly, and currently (from January 2020) I have gone back to Victorian times with a group of fern-hunters of the 1870s and 1880s, some of whom had positions in the Indian army and took advantage of their location to hunt for new ferns. Unfortunately only one side of this correspondence has been kept: the letters sent to Colonel Frederick Henderson by other fern-hunters. Some letters include lively descriptions of a colonial life featuring balls, tennis and badminton tournaments, picnics and house parties. I am looking forward to getting back to these characters after our enforced break.
The book cleaning group has now gone on to projects such as the re-filing of botanical illustrations into acid-free files. There are usually three of us at a session and we have a good chat. The Library is a peaceful, studious place and the stepping back into history is the best aspect of the work to me. There is nothing to dislike, except that on occasion the air-conditioning in the Library misbehaves and we all get a bit chilled!
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