“No one knows what is in it”: Cataloguing the Linnean Society Domestic Archive

At the end of an immense project to catalogue the papers of the Linnean Society itself, Project Archivist Alex Milne recounts the process of working with this important collection.

Published on 14th February 2024

A note of a council meeting stating that the Council of The Linnean Society wish to send a letter to Linnean Fellows on buying the collections of their founder James Edward Smith
DA/COL/2/1/5: Lord Stanley PLS, writes on a meeting of Council on the 29th May 1828 to consider further the purchase of the late President James Edward Smith's collections.

During the first meetings of the Linnean Society of London, the founding Fellows signed their names in a ledger. Over 200 years later, that ledger sits in storage inside the Society’s rooms in Burlington House and a whole collection has grown, branching out from those very first documents. Minute books, correspondence, receipts and building plans all created in the founding and day to day running of the Society. In fact, the Domestic Archive continues to expand as we hold events, publish research, or care for and study our collections. It is a rich source of first-hand information on the history of the Society, giving understanding to key decisions, the lives of staff and the tremendous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes.

watercolour drawing of a sun burner for the Meeting Room of The Linnean Society
DA/OPS/2/1/4 (item 59): 1889, Hand-drawn image of the proposed alteration to the Meeting Room sunburner.

Thanks to a generous legacy left to the Society by a Fellow, Gertrude Marsh-Looi, the Collections Team were able to fund an Archivist (me) to finally create a formal catalogue of this material and make the information we have available and searchable.

Creating an archival collection from scratch is a time-consuming and complicated process. The lack of documentation or personal insight explaining the significance or provenance of files, naming important figures, or linking artwork to their publications can leave a catalogue confusingly vague. Luckily early work on the collection had grouped papers relating to Society Meetings or items in the collections together. This not only gave me a good understanding of recordkeeping in the Society, but also the bones of a structure around which to build the catalogue. Once this was finalised I was able to go through each box, file by file, and sort them into sections that reflected their place in the history of the Society’s actions. This included an ‘all out siege’ on Burlington House, scouring cupboards and ransacking desks for letters, plans, and paperwork that helped to complete the picture.

Front and back cover of a booklet of fireworks and decorations printed colour
DA/ENG/2/6/2 (item 1): James Pain. Printed catalogue of illuminations, fireworks and decorations for the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, belonging to the Piccadilly Decoration Fund Committee (for which James Murie FLS was Secretary).

Every file had to be read and weeded for out-of-scope items, such as magazines left in the Librarian’s purchasing files, Christmas cards packed away with details of an upcoming Council Meeting, or an envelope buried in the Collections papers marked ‘Sounds Intriguing!’…that turned out to be disappointingly empty. Every file kept was then numbered and checked for conservation and security issues before being added to the catalogue. In total 4,050 files and items were listed and then stored securely in Burlington House.

Rummaging through the material, you start to build a picture of the Society. Items from different sections of the catalogue start to link together, showing just how intertwined every element of the Society really is, and paramount to all of this is the relationship with the Fellowship.

Pages of the Royal Mail special stamp book with stamps celebrating the Linnean society featuring pictures of animals from the collections
DA/ENG/2/7/2/3: Complete volume of special stamps produced by Royal Mail in 1988, including stamps celebrating the Linnean Bicentenary featuring images of plants and animals from the Society's collections. Gifted to the Society by W.G. Chaloner PLS.

One thing I found particularly endearing about this archive is its occasional lack of continuity. The gaps of information can be confounding and send you on a quest to a file that may seem totally irrelevant on the surface but actually gives you more leads to follow. While this sadly means that some information is still hidden, or even lost to a shredder of days past, it may also leave us with some wonderful surprises to come.

small watercolour image of a bat by W.H. Flowers
DA/COL/2/1/13 (item 1): 1851, William H. Flower FLS. Watercolour sketch of a whiskered bat.

Above all, what stays with you about this archive are the voices of the people found within it. Whether you’re reading early letters from esteemed Fellows or more modern correspondence of Fellows and staff who are still in living memory, the voices of these people shine through, their jokes, their frustrations, their schemes and, above all, their investment in the Society and its work.

As the Society moves towards making the majority of our collections available, we hope that providing access to our wealth of material will give an unrivalled insight into the work of the Society and the lives of the people who have helped it to thrive and in-so doing to support further research into the natural sciences.


Title quote taken from A.T. Gage FLS and W.T. Stearn PLS, "A Bicentenary History of the Linnean Society of London". Available for purchase in our online store or on site.

Page 18, Thomas Marsham letter to James Edward Smith, 11th of September 1796 - "The Rules are not kept to, the Museum in a state of confusion. No one knows what is in it".