Evergreen: Patrick Geddes and the Environment in Equilibrium

Elaine MacGillivray, Project Archivist at the University of Edinburgh, tells us about a two-year project which aims to preserve, conserve and catalogue papers of Sir Patrick Geddes.

Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a pioneer of the environmental movement and one of the greatest social thinkers of his time. His fascination with the organisation of human societies and their spatial manifestation in the city and country led him to develop a highly individualistic theory of societies and cities. Geddes was a strong advocate of town planning and is perhaps most famous for introducing the concept of “region” to planning and architecture.

In October 2016, the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh and the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Strathclyde commenced their collaborative, Wellcome Trust Research Resources-funded, project ‘Evergreen: Patrick Geddes and the Environment in Equilibrium’. This is a two-year project which aims to preserve, conserve, catalogue and virtually reunite two collections of papers of Sir Patrick Geddes held in both institutions.

The project seeks to create a complete catalogue of the collections, enhancing the existing, inadequate catalogues; create an online scalable resource virtually reuniting the collections; undertake a robust preservation and conservation programme, repacking all collections in archival packaging with all significantly damaged items conserved to ensure the long-term preservation of both collections; digitise a small selection of items and make the collections ‘digitisation-ready’; and develop a virtual community and active network of researchers with an interest in Geddes and to engage researchers with the collections.

The collections, which are actually two parts of an original whole, separated by historical accident, are of international significance. Combined, the collections contain over 4000 plans, over 1400 photographic items and in the region of 175000 other items, comprised of papers, notebooks, and correspondence, amongst much more. The collections content ranges from his Cities and Town Planning Exhibitions; The Survey of Edinburgh; his work in India and Israel; his summer schools to his fascinating correspondence with countless networks of contemporaries. The prolific mass and polymathic nature of the collections reflect Geddes’s energy, ideas, relationships and working, and vividly document the development of all Geddes’s theories.

A preliminary Enquiry, A City Survey, is essential to adequate Town Extension Planning, and still more to City Improvement and Development upon any considerable scale.” (Patrick Geddes, ‘Cities in Evolution’, 1949).


(University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections. Coll-1167 – A1.13 – The Valley Section and its social types: in their native habitat and in their parallel urban manifestations).

Project progress to date has seen the retro-conversion of over 750 legacy printed catalogue descriptions to electronic format. An extensive stock-take of the Edinburgh University collections has now been completed with material having now been identified, accounted for and catalogue numbers applied and locations information recorded accordingly. Over 11,000 catalogue descriptions have now been assessed and a programme of re-cataloguing commenced. This work will facilitate enormous steps forward in improving access to the collections and subsequently, the sharing and investigation of Geddes’s ideas.

The next stage in the project will be for the University of Edinburgh’s Library Digital Development team to generate some possible options for the online resource technical infrastructure. The peculiar systems, the legacy cataloguing styles and their inconsistencies, and by their very polymathic and disparate nature – the collections themselves – will present some interesting cataloguing challenges to overcome. We will require professional and innovative solutions, and perhaps even a Geddesian approach: ‘Vivendo Discimus – By Living we Learn: By Creating We Think’.

The project archivist has been engaging with over 30 key stakeholders and later in the project there will be a number of exciting opportunities for individuals/ groups to engage in more depth with the project and the collections. Previous newsletters can be found on our project blog (soon to be updated), and you can also follow us on Twitter @GeddesEvergreen. If you would like to receive our quarterly newsletter please contact the project archivist, Elaine MacGillivray – elaine.macgillivray@ed.ac.uk.