Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh


Leonie Paterson - Archivist

Leonie provides an overview of her role at the library, describing how an inquiry from botanist George Forrest's granddaughter led her to a career in Archiving.

We learn about the contents of the archive including correspondence from collectors, field books, manuscripts, David Douglas' telescope, plant models, illustrations, artwork, dance programmes, the glass plate photo collection and the hidden history of women working in the garden.

Leonie explains the challenges that part time archivists face: time-managing researcher requests, administration, dealing with the output from volunteer workers and the ongoing cataloguing necessary to make her "perfect archive".

There is a discussion around the "decolonisation of archives" and the experience of physical engagement with the collection when public access is increasingly digital and remote, especially during the COVID 19 lockdown.

She shows that even though the archive is ostensibly about plants, it is also about the lives of the people who worked and engaged with the garden.



Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

Hello and welcome to the Max Communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and i'm joined today by Leonie Paterson archivist for the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh Leonie would you like to introduce yourself and talk about how you came to be where you are yep hi my name is as you said Leonie Paterson i've been working at the botanic garden in the library for over 20 years now which is which is quite a thought i i started in the library um as the administrator looking after the records and the finances but because i had an interest in history i come from an archaeological background i've worked in the museum before uh they thought i think with the reason that i'd be quite interested in moving into the archives which is what happened i started taking on more and more archival inquiries and so that became a bigger part of my job and i eventually took the postgraduate course in archives management from Dundee university doing the the part-time distance learning course there and i've got the qualification now unfortunately at that time that was when i started um had my children and went part-time so i ended up with with a lot of the theory and less time to actually put it into practice because um i'm the first archivist at the botanic garden so we have this this collection of records that um hasn't been curated to archival standards before so to actually go in and tackle this collection is is quite an undertaking but um a work in progress but yeah fascinating all the thing how big is your collection then it's reasonably big i think it's maybe not as big as it could be i mean we've um been administered by uh government bodies by uh by the parliament throughout our history so it's not a collection that goes right back to our beginnings uh just 350 years ago announced in 1670 um so it's still quite a recent collection um but it takes up a medium-sized room of um of rolling stock shelving uh and extends into other parts of the library so i think for one person time it's big enough i think it's idiot big enough how do you spend an average day then oh at the moment i'm not going to admit how i spend an average day when i'm still working from home uh what with the the coronavirus uh crisis still still underway but uh usually you sort of plan what you're gonna do when you come in and then most of it being part-time just four hours a day is spent dealing with emails and inquiries and just um sort of keeping up to date with what's going on and a lot of like say um inquiries um currently or messages coming through on email so we spend a bit of time doing that and putting stuff together maybe for tours and that sort of thing and working the short days we find but by the time you've done that and the other stuff like large cataloguing jobs tend to take a bit of a back seat so the rest of the day might be spent just keeping on top of what's coming in uh just making sure i know what's coming in and finding places to put it what type of video do you deal with then sorry what type of material do you deal with oh the archives as was um the usual suspects are getting most of its letters correspondence uh mostly going back to the Victorian period a lot of the written words of field books and manuscripts um material from the plant collectors it's quite good so letters coming to and fro from the garden we have the um the odd object and that can include things like um the ballot box that's associated with the botanical society of Scotland or the telescope that's associated with the plant collector David Douglas apparently was found uh next to his body in the bull pit he was um found dead in a bowl put in this um in Hawaii on one of his plant collecting expeditions in 1850s and this telescope was found with them and that has found its way into our archive we've got plant models that we used for for teaching um we have illustrations as well like um uh botanical artwork there's there's a lot of that uh my favourite thing i think has to be the um photographic material that sort of thing the photographs uh both from the the plant collectors and uh covering the history of of the of the garden going back to as with er on every sort of format from glass plate negatives through to 30 Polaroids you're 250 no 315 years old this year right yes this is our obviously centenary there's another word for it isn't it yes it was a big year this year for um looking backwards and looking forwards over our 350s with a lot of these celebrations having to be put on hold unfortunately were there any um projects that you had in the pipeline i can't think oh sorry face i just got completely bloated with them all right people or um society uh that you've tied in with or anything like that oh gosh we're associated with the botanical society of Scotland we hold their archives and other societies like the Scottish rock garden club we hold their papers who accesses the collection for the most part and what are they looking for usually um access the collection it'll be members of staff uh looking for historic details uh maybe the part of the garden that they're working in or the specific plant that they might be working on um and you'll get the same sort of inquiries from researchers as well so it might be people looking about that let's say the history of a certain plant when did it first arrive in this country and that type of thing we get a lot of um people looking into people which is what i find more interesting i don't come from a plant background but there's i was quite surprised how how much the people actually grab me the the sort of people that worked in the garden or looked after the garden or who were in charge of the garden or were associated with the garden so we get a lot of people uh researching their papers that sort of thing genealogical inquiries the people whose relatives worked in the garden looking for any information we might have on them and that sort of thing we also do um run the odd course for students we're associated with some of the courses at Edinburgh university geography department um run a course on geography in the archives so uh we have students coming in our own students of course the botanic gardens runs a number of different courses so we'll have students from those courses but most having an awful lot of times taken up um with i was the casual visitor that's the right word so we do a lot of tours um and talks for garden societies uh or clubs or history societies and a lot of people coming into the garden as well um who are maybe on conferences or again just just local interest uh or local history groups or other archivists who come in and we'll have these two that we put together depending on what they're interested in uh so just though recovered crisis as well i suppose there'll be um less of that in the future i think we'll have gonna have to find different ways of disseminating information i guess i'll have to um yes get more associated with the digital and doing things online which is a steep learning curve what do you have available for digital viewing at the moment from the archives not a huge amount um we're looking at digitizing some of the uh the rare books in the collection and a lot of those have been digitized or sometimes if the book has been digitized by another organisation we'll link into that archives wise we think we felt it was more important to get the collection properly catalogued first and that's not happened it's been catalogued to uh collection level um but the um to actually go down into um um more detailed lists we haven't got that we felt it's probably more important to have that done first before we do any huge digitization projects what we find what's happening now is that um objects will be scanned when as and when we need them so we've got little bits here and little bits there and we can obviously do things digitally if people ask and that tends to be supposed because it's faster what we usually do if people are looking for images we'll scan them and send them it would be nice to actually just have a a proper program of of um getting things catalogued numbered and digitized and we're working on that that's i think going to be a big thing going forward certainly so to improve the cataloguing of the collection would be good and and and then get things digitized i think would be good this there's projects that have been um going on with uh uh jstor i think it is getting some of the plant collectors letters digitized but again i think we've done that in slightly in the wrong order we've done some scanning first and now we're looking at cataloguing and um and you know it's not going to do it i think cataloguing first and then and then get things made made available but some of our glass but negative collections have been scanned and and a lot of the um the George forest plant collecting he uh he's a plant collector he collected in china between 1904 and 1932. a lot of his glassblock negatives have been uh digitized partly um not necessarily to make them available though that will be the end results we hope but as a as a a protection measure as well actually just as a backup i think to get some of the older collections like the glass but negative digitized i think would be incredible we've got a huge collection uh in our basement of glass plate negatives that we've taken in the gardens of garden shots plant views and portraits that have been taken from the uh from the 1890s through to the 1950 that's a massive collection of a glass plate that would be incredible to get that done but that's a huge a huge job for someone you the royal botanic gardens are obviously a tourist attraction as well but do you as an archive get a lot of interest from foreign parties or is it mainly Scottish or UK based people we do give a lot of interest from from foreign partners usually delegations that are visiting the garden will usually be taken on some sort of tour whether it's around the garden and the archives will usually come into that uh quite often with our links to china thanks to the plant factory George ford we will often get um delegations from Chinese institutions or from the uh um from the diplomats uh that are here and to be able to get some of the Chinese collections out is is always good so that tends to be the main one for me that's the collection that i've concentrated on so that's good and i think that's something we need to work on more in the future as well actually building up more of these links and we're talking a lot about decolonising archives at the moment that's a big subject and about time too i think that we're talking more about it and that we've we've got plant collectors that have been going out to different countries collecting plants and bringing them back here with very little acknowledgement i think of the help that we got from the people that were actually in those countries will find um i think quite a colonial view so the Europeans will be mentioned and credited but very we've got so many Chinese collectors that would have helped George forest we just don't know their names and we don't know anything about them so it's trying to think of ways now how we can give back to these countries and i think to be able to to share the material that we've got i mean a duplicate set of the herbarium specimens that's the dried plants that the plant collector would have been collecting in order for the scientists to be able to study and name the plants so a duplicate set of those have gone back to kunming in yunnan from the George forest collection but to be able to do the same thing with the archives to be able to take copies of the letters and be able to make them available in china so that people there can actually see their own history and be able to study it and and link with us through that i think would be amazing as well so you've mentioned that you are concentrating on cataloguing at the backlog because it's so important to know what you've you've actually got but would you say there are any particular challenges that come with managing this particular archive for me at the moment the challenge is actually it's it's what you can do from home having to work from home that's a big challenge at the moment and there's opportunities there as well at the start you think oh my goodness what am i gonna what can i do and part of the problem i find especially we have a lot of volunteers actually that that work in in in the archives and they're producing a lot of lists but it's actually finding the time to actually do anything with those lists so that's um has been a big challenge in the past and that's something that i've been able to start working on which is brilliant because that will um add a lot to the cataloguing and then of course when we all went on furlough there's a big challenge of something having to stop doing all that and work out what we're gonna uh do with the archive at that point which there's just nothing now the challenge of course is how do we open up the archive now in a way that's safe for users and safe researchers and safe for us as well so that's our our next big challenge i think and making things more available digitally but i mean back in normal times the big challenge i had i think everything relates back to time doesn't the big challenge i had was time management when you've only got four hours a day and you come in and a lot of times spent with your email and with inquiries or maybe putting a tour together the big challenge was just not being able to find the time to do these uh large cataloguing projects or to to make sense this was a lot of the lists that we've got and put the two things together that's the challenge i suppose we're working from home as well it's i can do a lot of work on this but you can't really produce a catalog unless you actually got physical access to the collection so now going forward that's for me is it is the challenge is trying to sometimes you feel maybe we've not got enough time if i'm only gonna say maybe um have a limited time actually working with the collections it's the challenge of say being more firm i think and more strict with my time and saying i'm gonna rather than come in and say i'm gonna do this that and the other and then you find it goes out the window as soon as you open your email or someone turns up at your desk with a question or a big box of stuff that they want to donate to the archives is to be able to actually say right now if i'm going to come in to do a b and c then a b and c is what i'm going to have to do get it done use my time really effectively and be able to take something home that i will then be able to work on from home as well and actually uh for what i feel that i'm actually getting something achieved would be quite good and to actually all these things that we've been talking about doing over the last few years that just because of just day-to-day things it just doesn't get done to actually get these things done now and and get them done properly and get them out there would be good and and time management comes back to everything says i'm thinking about this question what the challenge is for me it's it's things like i'm collecting in the future and the records management side of it i really love some of our collections and that we have um correspondence collections relating to the regis keepers it's another word for the director of the organisation we have their letters uh going over years we've got a letter from Charles Darwin for example and uh writing to religious keeper asking him to recommend a nurseryman Edinburgh that can supply him with coloured uh primroses so he can do some of his experiments with them and to be able to actually pick up that letter and look at it and and show people something like that is incredible now that we're all emailing i guess i think we have reese's keepers now that are are retiring and we we haven't you know nothing's coming into the archives because it's all all virtual and we need to come up with a solution with that and there's no reason why we can't come up with a solution for that it's time it's just finding the time to work out what that is i think everything comes back to time management that's the big challenge for me and just using it more effectively what are your hopes for the future would you want as you say time would you want more staff or would you like to expand the collection in a certain direction or you've got a particular project in mind oh there's so many different things i think i think i get so easily distracted which is part of my problem as well you go in and you oh i could do this and i could do that to get everything done would be quite nice something i keep saying this it's on a purely shallow uh level as it were i'd love the archive to look better if you see what i mean you know when you watch tv programmes um with researchers setting archives who do you think you are or um um about researching your your housing researchers and historians sitting these archives with these incredible looking shells with all these identical boxes all of them beautifully labelled i find myself thinking i'd love an archive that i could take a tea a tv film i went to would be would be nice that would be lovely i don't even have the space to do that would be fantastic something that's really organised and just works really well but i think that's like it says on quite a vain shallow level i suppose it's kind of um a way of looking at maybe it's like having a really nice icing on your cake what i really want for the archives is just to have a better cake you'll have better cake mix if you see i mean so to have everything better catalogued um and in more detail so that it's a catch-22 isn't it do you do sometimes find when you've got researchers coming in that you haven't spent quite a lot of time trying to work out what they want for their inquiry it would be quite nice for researchers to be able to interrogate the catalogue in such a way that they're able to come and tell me what they want for their inquiry so it is like a catch-22 for me have more time to to catalog it to that level i have to spend less time doing the work for the researchers if you see what i mean so um so actually to have this time at the moment where things are a bit quieter to actually hopefully work on that and get that a lot better would be would be good and to come up with better workflows as well actually so for material coming in and and being accessioned and um appraised and listed and worked on to touch out the space and um and yes maybe get more staff and more help to actually um uh put these different workflows and all the different yeah the path through the archives or to to have more space and to be able to do that would be would be nice so you've mentioned George Forrest who i believe is a favourite of yours what in your opinion is your archives most interesting item oh i i've got so many different answers to this question you know when asking what your favourite song is sometimes it depends what you're in on the day so this was my favourite band as it were would be George Forrest um he was the collection that actually um really actually hooked me into the archives very much it was it was an inquiry right back at the start uh um shortly after i joined the botanic gardens i got an inquiry i actually did tags into something that's coming up recently as well it was um a man who had been at the village in china where Forrest had done a lot of his collecting from he had spoken to a girl there who knew that her grandfather had worked for George forest and she wanted to know what information we held on her grandfather and that got me into the archives and reading his letters and i thought being a historian coming from a historian background that i knew how to research um people i suppose we're looking at their obituaries or reading books about them to actually go in and read letters that were written 100 years ago from this small village in in yunnan province in china and to actually get inside George forest head and hear his thoughts and and realize these men are not perfect they're not these um these sort of amazing Goliath where they walk on water they're real living breathing human beings that have failures that have upset that have tantrums almost um i have successes as well and to be able to share that with him it really did feel as if he was actually still still there today writing these letters back today and even the language he uses i mean it could be in an email um the way he wrote it just really grabbed me what i was just quite current about that is i couldn't find anything about this girl's grandfather and that's i suppose what alerted me the fact that um that there are voices in the archive that you can certainly hear loud and clear and there are some that you absolutely can't and it's looking now at how these voices have been silenced and what we can do about it so that for me i think this collection and the fact that it takes so many boxes as well you can look at the environmental aspects of of the countryside the fact that it's shown in the photographs um the letters are incredible the stories that you can pull out of the forest collection uh are amazing and he looks at um our stories that he's heard in china as well and you get some of the some of the politics will come from so many different things um or boxes that collection takes that i think will always be my favourite collection there's certainly lots of other items that maybe don't get talked about as much but are equally as interesting maybe because they haven't got that visual impact they don't always come out on the tours so we've got things like um the first female gardeners uh at the garden and the it was seen as an experiment when we first employed women to do the gardening this is back in 1897 i think it was when we um we took two female gardeners on like i it as an experiment but i just i just find this really interesting because i can see a big stussy um arose over it and i can see both sides of the of the argument or the story we expected them to dress as boys essentially to sort of wear knickerbockers or sort of you know three-quarter-inch houses to tuck all their hair under a cat and basically almost hide the fact that they were women and it's even we haven't even got any photographs of them we've got really nothing to sort of show for their time here as it were um it was kept quite quiet i think the reason for that is because they've done a similar experiment in queue and i think when they found um that rumour started spreading that these ladies and knickerbockers apparently were working at queue there was such a huge fuss and a queue was absolutely inundated with people trying to get in to see these these ladies gardening that it wasn't until they actually did dress them as boys that the fuss died down and these women were actually allowed to get on with their work so we went straight in with that attitude and the two women that were employed lena barker and Constance hay curry knew this but constance hate curry refused to wear the boys outfit she felt it was important so that people could see that she was a woman could see that a woman could do this job and that there was no impediment there's no problem with a woman doing it but um i think when she said to the regis keeper at the time that she thought um the fact that she would have to dress as a boy was a joke she was at that point instantly dismissed which is uh seen as quite shocking now but i think again not supporting um Isaiah bailey Balfour the regis keeper i think if one of his male guards had spoken back to him like that he would probably confirm um got the sack pretty quick as well so it's a really interesting sort of argument when you could see both sides of it you can see there just keeper's side oh why you had to keep it so quiet almost as i don't haven't said that i think um once they start to concentrate curry i think it did end up being debated in parliament so i don't know if he was able to keep it that quiet at the end of the day but i think um isaac bailey buff was seemed to be the one in the right and and um and and off constance um went but um it would appear to actually um she ended up i think living on the other side of Canada so she wasn't um she wasn't um as a fragile uh little girl as it were she was i think very strong very powerful woman i think i can quite see why she wanted to wear the dress that's a um a fabulous little collection it doesn't often come out like i said because there's no photographs attached to it it's just a stack of paper but my my favourite art um item in the collection i don't know it took me a long time to answer this but it's a dance program and i really love this it was discovered at the back of the archives in a box of material that had to be discarded written on the side of it so i can only imagine this go in there by a mistake a rolled up piece of paper that i unrolled and and it was a dance program it turns out was it was done in 1936 with all the dances that would be done at a guild dance so it's the guild being the society that was put together for members of staff because we had a system of probationary gardeners you would come and you would work for three years in the garden um get more qualified get more training and then you would move move on to as bigger and better jobs i think is is the idea so the guild was uh was was started so that all these people could keep in touch and they would have annual dances and and with strikes and things like this so all the dances that were to be dancing right down the middle of the program but surrounding the dances are cartoons joined by one of the probationer gardeners a man called john Clark in 1936 and he's drawn cartoons of things and events that had happened to the gardeners uh in the in the garden they're they're brilliant just so well done and it's the fact that a lot of these events i'd actually heard about anecdotally people will come to you as the archivist and tell your stories about things that have happened and one of them was um back at them in the 1930s they would have used horses instead of tractors we know no churches for the garden staff in those days so horses were used um to to help lug the plants around and you know carry the equipment around and we had a bell uh that used to be attached to the palm house in the garden and it would signal the beginning and end of every day and when the brakes were and apparently this horse was well known for when the bell rang at the end of the day this horse would go regardless of what it was doing or what job it was involved with off back to the stables it would go and there's a cartoon in the corner of this dance program obviously the horse in the distance with the trailer and things flying off it disappearing off up the hill and all these gardeners chasing after him and and in the other corner there's um it it's um men in a lecture theatre because they would say the probationary gardeners would have to attend uh classes in the lecture theatre at the end of the day uh which must be now a terribly long day for them to get their qualifications and they're all sitting in this lecture page and this bag is making a noise and and they're all embarrassing looking at it and this this story uh ended up being recounted in one of the the guild newsletters i found that it was one of the probationary gardeners was moving house and this was his last bag of stuff that was moving from one house to the other and one of his friends thought it would be amusing it had an alarm clock in the bag to set the alarm clock to go off in the middle of the lecture and then lock the bag uh which is exactly what happened so to see this um cartoon of that happening well my favourite bit is a gardener who has put a ladder up against the branch of a tree and has attempted to saw through the branch but he saw through the wrong side of it so when the branch comes off the ladder goes and he goes flying and just the way the whole thing is described is very amusing and it even um suggests that when you land you land on your head so in order to save the shoe leather because i think the shoes were and were provided by the botanic gardens i believe so if you went through your shoes too quickly questions were asked so to see that side of the garden's history that you will never see uh published in an official book or a garden guide but to see what the what what made the gardeners laugh what was happening in the the garden with the alarm clocks and the and the the men falling off trees when they cut the wrong branch down or this horse that would disappear off up the hill was ah just just brilliant to be able to see that and and to touch it this this real piece of history little anecdotes like that are best aren't they yes and that's that's for me it's it's um something that's with archives maybe have this impression of being maybe a bit dry or a bit dusty for you know the usual idea of course they're not to see something like that and i think when you do the tours and you're able to show something like that it really sort of brings a life of people as well it's actually yeah to actually have a link with those people that are no longer here is what was even better for me with the the with the dance program and the cartoonist it occurred to me we well later as my brain put two and two together that i've had an inquiry from a lady in Canada asking about her father who had worked here and it occurred to me that he had the same name and i went and looked i thought goodness it's the same man so to actually be able to email her and say did your dad draw cartoons by the chances oh yes he did yes he used to especially when we were kids he used to amuse this whole time accounting so to be able to send her a scan of this document and say well yes look what just turned up in the back of the archives was yeah just brilliant as well just to be able to you're touching history every day i think that's a fantastic story thank you so much for agreeing to speech me today Leonie it's been a real pleasure hearing about all the the different stories that you have in your archive and hopefully you'll be able to open again soon and everyone can see the illustration of pavlov's horse more ways of getting these things online as well i think so yeah time time's the thing isn't it yeah get it all catalogued so you know what you have and then work from there it's all about organisation in it yes absolutely thank you very much oh thank you for inviting me