9. At Kew Gardens

Although the founding year of Kew Gardens is approximately 1759 (based on a letter noting botanic activity and plants being studied there), Kew Gardens Library is only about 160 years old. The collections started with 600 volumes and grew from the middle of the 19th century onward. The Archives date back to 1840, however, as with many old historical buildings, there is no “official” starting date.

The reason the name is plural (Kew Gardens) is due to King George III who inherited two gardens from his grandfather and grandmother. He set about to create one estate and the plural name stuck. Currently, over 200,000 pieces of botanical art are stored in the collection, together with 300,000 books and pamphlets, 5,000 periodicals (only on botany and not horticulture), and 7 million sheets of paper in the Archives. Approximately 30,000 specimens are added to the archives per year.


The first half of our visit to Kew Gardens Library and Archives comprised of a lecture by Andrew Wiltshire, a member of the Beatrix Potter Society. He shared the history of Potter from her motivation to write an encrypted journal to her inspiration for the beloved Peter Rabbit series. Before she published any of her famous works of fiction, Potter possessed a keen interest in Fungi and how it spread. Excited about her personal research, she presented her hypothesis in the form of an academic paper to Kew Gardens. However, Kew refused the paper on the terms that she was a women and therefore her work could not be taken seriously. The picture below on the right is the only item from Potter that Kew Gardens currently owns.

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Kew Gardens was not the first special library the British Studies class was introduced to in the UK. Unlike lending libraries, university libraries and medical libraries, special libraries like Kew typically keep all the items acquired in their collections and are not necessarily concerned about weeding through and getting rid of anything since items published hundreds of years ago are still valid information in the collection today. The oldest item dates back to 1370: a manuscript in Latin (pictured above to the left, although not in its original binding). The oldest printed book is in German, dated 1485. Fiona Ainsworth, the librarian who guided our class through the tour, explained that some of the oldest most valuable manuscripts the Library owns were made into facsimiles. One, surprisingly enough, was even scented to imitate its prototype as closely as possible!

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After touring the Library and Archives, the class was able to explore the grounds and visit other historical sites nearby like the Kew Palace and also see the diverse plant specimens within the gardens. For one of my initial book reviews, I chose to read and write about For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. The book outlines the life of Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, who was charged to “steal” the coveted Chinese tea recipe, which was the best black tea known to the modern world at that time. Fortune also took expeditions around the world and transported plant specimens he discovered to the Kew Gardens. Knowing this bit of history before my visit gave my experience at the Gardens a greater meaningful edge.

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I genuinely appreciate the timelessness and uniqueness of special libraries like Kew Gardens Library and Archives. The Kew collections consist of published and unpublished works, a treasure trove of information much of which is impossible to find on the Internet. Perhaps one of the most profound realities that struck me on this trip was just how much information is available and yet how much of it is completely inaccessible for remote users. Despite how idealistic and unrealistic it may sound, I hope that Kew, like other beautiful, historically rich and distinctive libraries, will be able to provide open access to all of its materials in the future.

Below is a video about the Fungi collected at Kew. I thought the video was meaningful not only because of Beatrix Potter’s initial interest in Fungi (and Kew’s rejection of her paper), but also because it goes to show how books are not the only things that can be stacked and classified. The Gardens store and catalogue vast amounts of plants.


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