Meet the Team — Archivist

We introduce Liz McGow, the Linnean Society's Archivist

Published on 25th June 2019

Our latest Meet the Team profile is on our Archivist, Liz McGow.

Liz McGow

What are the key parts to your role?

I oversee the administration and care of the archives held by the Society. The role, which is part of the larger Collections Team, involves the day-to-day running of the Archives, including cataloguing work; answering enquiries and assisting researchers in the Reading Room; managing volunteers and student placements; outreach work including giving tours, producing displays and writing blogs; and contributing to the work of the Events and Educations staff.

What do you like about your job?

Working with such varied and historic material on a daily basis is a real joy. My absolute favourite part of the job is delving in to boxes of archives which have been largely untouched for years and finding out more about them. Just this week we came across 6 personal diaries, dated 1906-1912, written by a Griffith Humphreys. From further research, he turned out to be a ‘Society entertainer’ by profession as well as an amateur natural historian. They are beautifully written accounts of his daily life and contain regular observations on nature (including creatures he used to keep in his house!). He also records his weight, height and collar size at the beginning of most volumes.

How did you end up in this job?

In the summer before doing my MA in Classics at Durham University I worked in ticket sales at Windsor Castle and whilst there heard about the Royal Archives based in the Round Tower and the work of the Archivists based there. The idea that I could be paid for nosing around in historical papers had me hooked and I’ve never looked back since! Since qualifying from UCL in Archives and Records Management I have worked in a number of institutions including the Wallace Collection, the Royal Society, Lambeth Palace Library, the Paul Mellon Centre, and the Royal London Hospital. I was over the moon to get the Archivist role at the Linnean Society as the collections are so fascinating and diverse.

What is your favourite species of animal or plant?

Lewin’s Tasmanian Tiger
Drawing of Tasmanian Tiger by John Lewin
Fratercula arctica in the Faroe Islands © Wikimedia Commons

In our archive we hold an early drawing of a Tasmanian Tiger by John Lewin, dated c. 1809 [Ref: MS/630]. Unsubstantiated reports of attacks on livestock in the 19th century led to aggressive hunting by bounty hunters and farmers and they were officially declared extinct in 1936. The tragic story of their demise and their beautiful and unusual appearance makes them my favourite animal.

On a cheerier note, my second favourite creature is the Puffin. We saw them on a recent trip to Iceland and they are even more adorable (and tiny!) up close.

What is the most interesting item to you in the Linnean Society collections?

There are so many treasures to choose from but my favourite item in the archive is a travel diary [Ref: MS/174a] by one of the Society’s Founder Fellows, John Timothy Swainson (1756-1824). Dated 1799, it’s a beautifully written account of Swainson’s journey from London to the Lake District and contains wonderful descriptions of everything he sees along the way including details of landmarks, customs, people and scenery. It’s a glorious snapshot of life at the turn of the 18th Century!

Swainson diary
John Timothy Swainson's diary

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Anything history related really but I’m a huge fan of the National Trust and enjoy going to their properties and learning about the people who lived and worked there! I also love going to the theatre and concerts.