I'd worked in technical libraries before but not with such old and fragile books, so when the volunteering opportunity came up to join the collection care project in the Science Library at RHS Garden Wisley, it sounded interesting.
Dust is the enemy of any library and recent building work in the Laboratory has compounded the problem. I was joined in the cleaning work by my namesake Anne, also a volunteer, who is helping with the work. The volumes have to be cleaned with a small vacuum cleaner, bought specially for the purpose, we also find that a traditional shaving brush is just right to remove the dust.
We started with some bound journals from the 19th century. These volumes include beautiful hand-drawn illustrations where the colours have been retained well over time. Many of the journals are quite large and heavy so one of us holds the volume and the other vacuums. To remove them all from the higher shelves involves lots of climbing up and down library steps. Once clear, the empty shelves are also thoroughly cleaned. The most common problems are covers detaching and inserted illustrations falling out. Each volume is inspected and, if damaged, put aside for specialist conservation work.
A world of plants in one place
The books vary in age and those from the 21st, 20th and 19th century are all filed side by side. To the right and left of the door as you enter the Science Library are the floras of different countries. Many have beautiful illustrations. For me the South African floras show some of the most beautiful flowers, but there are examples of floras from all over the world.
Some of the 19th and early 20th century books are real gems as they contain correspondence either from the author or eminent botanists of the time who originally donated the books to Wisley, or the RHS's original 19th century site at Chiswick. They make fascinating reading. What must it have been like when these letters were written?
We are lucky to have this wonderful collection and the use of modern technology to pursue our knowledge. There is a lot to do, but as a team we are making good progress. This stage of the collection care project in the Science Library should be finished in the next couple of months. No doubt new areas of the libraries' collections await their turn for cleaning and more volunteers will be needed in the future.
** Please note the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author and are not necessarily those of the RHS **
How can you support our book conservation work?
Illustrations from Paxton’s Magazine of Botany and Register of Flowering Plants
RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue.
Even if you are not an RHS member, the Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.