Saturday, August 15, 2015

Kew Gardens

Waterlily House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Founded in 1840, Kew Gardens holds a vast collection of plant species from around the globe. Botanical research and planting flourished in the era of British Imperialism, and the gardens at Kew became were dedicated to the study and cultivation of flora. 

Around 1852, the library at Kew was founded, and it now holds 300,000 books, 5,000 periodicals, and 200,000 pieces of art, all resources in research regarding botanics, plant species, and the history of Kew Gardens.

The oldest item in the Kew Library is dated 1370, but the 18th century was the golden age of botanical illustration, and the bulk of the collections fall into the 1700s.

Botanical illustrations are among the most gorgeous and detailed I've glimpsed, and Kew has massive collections from Botanical Magazine, which centered around depictions of rare and non-native plants for enthusiasts and scholars. Illustrations are typically made on white paper, and the specimen rendered tends to hold all characteristics of the plant. Although every trait represented is not likely to be found in a small sample, the details help with identifying the less than perfect specimens in the wild.

Rhododendron Botanical Illustration, Kew Library 
The library and archives tend not to weed any volumes, as the information is apt to be contextual, if not still pertinent. The plant features in botanical illustrations remain accurate, typically. Although old herbals might bend toward superstition, they are fascinating resources for historical study.

The archives at Kew retains the records of Kew's creation, as well as collections acquired and purchased, such as letter between botanists Asa Gray and Joseph Hooker. Correspondence between plant hunters, people sent abroad to search for specimens to bring back to England, also enriches the collections.

The archives are just beginning to be cataloged, which will increase the ease of finding specific items for researchers.

The library and archives at Kew were established for the specialized purpose of botanical research, but also to assist those to identify specimens collected in the Herbarium.

Herbariums are not exactly commonplace institutions, but Kew's use to researchers and botanists hinges on this. Seven million specimens, stored in bespoke boxes and envelopes, are stored in the Herbarium at Kew. The process of plant preservation has undergone several overhauls in the past centuries. Pests are a perennial problem when storing flora, and the practice was once to coat the specimens in poison upon their arrival. But mercury is not kind to people, either. The current practice involves freezing the specimens before bringing them into the Herbarium for storage.

This is one of the few cases where we can see an entire information ecosystem interacting: library, archives, gardens, and herbarium. Every entity was established for the study of plants and to increase knowledge, and each entity is entwined with the others, strengthening the meaning and context of the collections at Kew.

Spiral stairs, Kew Herbarium
Find Kew Library online.

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