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It’s just over two years since I had the good fortune to be appointed Library Manager here at the Botanic Garden’s Cory Library. Although relatively small in Cambridge terms, the library, named after Garden benefactor Reginald Cory, is an Alladin’s Cave of fascinating volumes.
As well as modern books on plants and horticulture, used by Garden staff, the collection includes over a thousand books printed before 1900, and sets of some of the earliest gardening and botanical periodicals. These older items are a fascinating and rich resource for anybody interested in the history and development of botany and gardening. But they are not only interesting and important for their printed contents. I encourage people to think of them in the same way they might think about any item on display in one of the University of Cambridge Museums – as objects, each with a unique history and a story to tell. Each book was made, owned and used, and we can learn about the lives of those involved from the evidence they left behind.
There are many clues to look out for – what’s the binding made of and how is it decorated?; has the book been personalised, perhaps with a coat of arms or the owner’s initials on the binding, or a bookplate inside?; are there handwritten notes, autographs or even doodles? Paying attention to all of these features can help us learn more about the people who interacted with the book and the world in which they lived.
As I catalogue each book, I include notes about this kind of evidence (we call it ‘copy specific information’). One of my favourite pieces of evidence so far is a self-portrait (pictured), drawn in ink on a blank page at the front of a book by its owner Reuben Bourne in 1676; and of course it’s really satisfying coming across connections to the Garden’s history, such as the bookplate of J.S. Henslow (pictured), who was responsible for founding the Garden on its present site.
By treating books not simply as texts but as objects, paying attention to all the bits of evidence left on and in them by the people who made, owned and used them, we can enrich our knowledge of the past and uncover some fascinating stories along the way.
To learn more about the Cory Library visit our pages on the Garden’s website, and follow us on Twitter (@corylibrary). If you’ve got any queries or would like to visit, please drop me an email: email@example.com.
Jenny Sargent, Cory Library Manager, Cambridge University Botanic Garden