The Library

We have one of the largest collections of published botanical information in the world. Our main subject area is the taxonomy and systematics of wild plants, including collections of herbaria in microform.

An old book open in the library

Our main subject area is the taxonomy and systematics of wild plants, including collections of herbaria in microform.  

We also have material on the following:

  • Specialised horticulture, horticultural history and management, botanic gardens and garden history, including seed lists from botanic gardens and nursery catalogues from commercial growers.  

  • Large collection of maps and travel literature relating to expeditions and to regions of botanical importance. 

  • Plant anatomy, genetics and biochemistry, British and world non-lichenised fungi and lichens, economic botany, medicinal botany and ethnobotany. 

  • The history and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew including a picture collection stored on CD-ROM. 

What is the collection policy? 

Materials are generally postgraduate level or above. There are no restrictions on language or country of origin and items are collected in whatever format they are issued: books, serials, microforms, CD-ROMs and other electronic media, videotapes and audiotapes. 

We have exchange arrangements with 263 institutions in 70 countries. Materials are acquired by gift, exchange or purchase: incoming items are screened before accessioning takes place.  

Our Library does not normally collect European or North American material of a purely regional nature. This is a result of an agreement we made with the Natural History Museum known as the Morton Agreement of 1962. Whereby our Herbarium concentrates on the floristics of non-temperate parts of the world, British and world non-lichenised fungi, grasses and orchids. The Natural History Museum concentrates on the flora of Europe (including the UK), Central and North America, together with British and world lichenized fungi, algae, mosses and liverworts.  

We do collect UK regional floras and this policy is now essential in support of the Seed Conservation department's work at Wakehurst. Departments other than the Herbarium are not covered by this agreement and consequently the library does buy across all subject areas at the request of its staff.  

Antiquarian materials are purchased only to fill gaps in the collection and are subject to funds being available.  

The Library maintains a list of booksellers specialising in botany and horticulture. If you would like a copy, please send an email with the subject heading 'Booksellers list' to Fiona Ainsworth (f.ainsworth@kew.org). 

The history of the library 

Before 1850   

Until 1852 there was no formal Library at Kew although from 1846 the Treasury allowed an annual grant of £10 towards the purchase of books for students. Before that time the first unofficial Director, Sir Joseph Banks (until 1820), and later William T. Aiton (until 1841) and the first official Director, Sir William Hooker (from 1840), made their own libraries available for use.  

In 1852 the Reverend William A. Bromfield bequeathed his herbarium and well-chosen library of about 600 volumes and accommodation was made available on the ground floor of Hunter House at the front of the present complex of herbarium and library buildings. In 1854 George Bentham presented his library of 1,200 standard texts and in 1866 (following his death in 1865) Sir William Hooker's library and correspondence were purchased for £1,000.  

Hooker's library was a particularly fine one with many items purchased by him during his lifetime as diverse as Ruiz's Florae Peruvianae et Chilensis (Madrid, 1794) and Besler's Hortus eystettensis (1613) although many of those with illustrations are uncoloured working copies. Additionally, there were many items presented to him by contemporaries such as John Lindley, Robert Brown of the British Museum, Carl Blume of Leiden, and Augustin and Alphonse de Candolle of Geneva.  

1850s onwards 

From the 1850s the Treasury increased the annual grant to £100 and during the 19th century many exchange agreements with the major botanical institutions were established which were consolidated with the use of the journal Kew Bulletin from its inception in 1887. These brought a full range of scientific journals to Kew - a number of these agreements (such as with Paris, Leiden, New York and others) are still in force today.  

An impetus for the acquisition of finer volumes in the Library which were beyond the purchase grant provided by the Treasury resulted from the establishment of the Bentham-Moxon Trust founded initially with money bequeathed by George Bentham in 1884 and augmented by funds from Miss M. L. Moxon and A. E. Moxon in 1931. The Trust purchased extensively on behalf of the Library including: Mycological works from the Library of M. C. Cooke [1894]. 

Sponsoring a book 

You can make a valuable contribution to the Library by sponsoring the purchase of new books and helping Kew to provide botanical knowledge for the world. 

Books purchased through your gifts will be embellished with a bookplate acknowledging your generosity as well as commemorating a special occasion or remembering a loved one. Donors are also invited to the Library to see the books they have donated. 

Find out more about supporting Kew.

Discover more

  • A collage of photos and letters related to Joseph Hooker

    Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project

    Digitising the personal and scientific correspondence of the 19th century botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker.

    Read about the project
  • Miscellaneous Reports Project

    Cataloguing and conserving the Miscellaneous Reports Collection - a collection that contains important contextual information relating to Kew’s Herbarium and Economic Botany collections.

    Read about the project