Herbal magic: from tiny acorn to mighty oak – a case study in collaboration, outreach and information literacy development - Aimee Cook, Gillian Johnston & Moira Bent
Herbal Magic: from tiny acorn to mighty oak: a case
study in collaboration, outreach and information
Robinson Library, Newcastle University
Newcastle University Library’s
• There are over 100 special collections in the Robinson Library.
• Our Special Collections are kept apart from the other collections in the
library because they are seen as special.
• They might be see as special for many reasons – perhaps they are rare,
old, or came from someone important.
• It’s not just books that you will find in our Special Collections.
• We have all sorts of things including photographs, maps, cartoons,
recordings and objects too, including a suffragettes’ banner and a pair of
socks that allegedly belonged to a murderer!
Herbals in our Special Collections
• Herbals are books containing the names and descriptions of herbs and plants.
• Herbals tell us what is good about each herb or plant and how they can be used
for healing or medicine.
• We have several herbals in our special collections……….
Grete Herball (1526)
•The most famous of the early printed herbals
and the first English illustrated herbal.
William Turner’s Herbal (1568)
•William Turner (1508-1568) is known as “The
Father of English Botany”.
(Botany is the science of plants)
Rembert Dodoens’ A niewe herball
•First published in 1554.
•Dodoens was a doctor and was interested in
the medical uses of plants.
Elizabeth Blackwell. A Curious Herbal
•One of the first herbals by a woman.
•Contains colour pictures, drawn by Blackwell.
Current Research into herbs at
• Studying how herbs may be used to treat Alzheimer's
disease and Parkinson's disease.
• Studying traditional herbal medicines to see how they
might improve memory.
• Studying how herbs might be used to treat diabetes.
• Studying how herbs might act as anti-aging agents.
Herbal Bath Bombs
• It is well known that certain herbs and plants
such as Lavender have relaxing properties.
• In aromatherapy fragrant essential oils
extracted from plants are used to alter a
• This why many bubble baths, shower gels and
bath bombs contain herb and plant extracts.
Tiny Acorn - Genesis of the Project
Outreach in Institutional Objectives:
“As a world-class civic university, our engagement with civil society is integral to
ensuring that our academic and professional activities have genuine economic,
social and cultural benefits... Our students and graduates play an important role,
for example through placements and volunteering.”
Outreach in Library Objectives:
“Engaging with the wider community”
Current Library Outreach Activities:
Education Outreach offering to local schools
To Mighty Oak – Organic Growth
Facets - Education outreach
• Learnt about rare & archival material
• Learnt about science & research
Packaged at a level that was accessible for the age group/Packaged into a fun activity
involving a bit of science, history and research.
• Teachers– extra-curricular links
• A chance to experience the University environment – meet a scientist, interact with
The Herbal Magic workshops at the BSF were rated by 7 teachers who all graded it
excellent and it was one of the most universally popular workshops:
“Fantastic workshop delivered right at the children’s level, bonus making something to
“Really interesting. Some really useful ideas that we will use in school.”
”Once the children began making bath bombs the session came alive and was a big
“I really enjoyed making
the bath bomb as it was
interesting to see the
different reactions… a
chemical reaction can
make the bowl go cold”
“I have enjoyed
it was fun and
“(I learnt) the uses for
herbs in modern and
historic day. Ancient
Egyptians had herbs we
still use today, rosemary
was a love charm in the
clever at using
“people are still
Facets – Student Learning in Context
• PG assessed piece of work, incorporating both archival materials
& current research
(Formed the basis of teaching aids in the outreach classes)
• Embedding IL into teaching (authority, attribution, picture copyright, referencing)
• Provides real context for learning – real applications for work
• Highlighted & reinforced a skills gap and the need for academic skills teaching
(Lead to the fast-tracking of a 10 credit bearing module on Effective Communication Skills for PG
Research for science communication and writing for a lay audience)
• Volunteering & employability – important aspect of HEI learning
Samantha Small, Biology undergraduate & volunteer at the BSF workshops:
“I really enjoyed taking part in the workshops. It was a great opportunity for someone like me, considering going
into teaching, to experience doing science with children and dealing with the complex often strange questions
brought up by them! It's definitely something I would do again.”
Linh Kieu Nguyen, MSc in Medicinal Plants and Functional Foods student & volunteer at the Big Bang Fair:
“I had a wonderful time when I volunteered at the Herbal Magic workshops. I loved being involved in the
activities with children, especially helping them make the bath bombs. I learned more about the skills of
teaching children. I hope the project will be continued.”
Facets - Academics staff, research & teaching:
• Allowed the library to make links between our collections
and current research
• For AFRD - Able to use the skills of our Education Officers
to create collaboration and impact
• Academic involvement lent credibility and authority
• Allowed a more holistic approach to teaching & learning
Facets - Library Liaison & learning
• Connections between teaching/research and our
collections – great exposure for Special Collections
• Challenged some of our assumptions on our own IL
• Raised the library’s profile – internally as teachers in our
own right within the university and externally with our
• Cohesive focal point - a chance for the entire library
staff to get behind an outreach project
• Scope for outreach with members of the public – library
guide web pages and physical Exhibition. This has lead
to possible further links arising
Continuation of project
Continues to grow and evolve - organic nature:
• Repeated workshop at National Science & Engineering Week
Fair and Night at the Museum
• Further involvement in assessment & IL teaching in academic
• Further collaborations and partnerships proposed – Hexham
group, potential links with the Dilston Physic Garden and
Alnwick Poisons Garden.
• Other departments interested in collaborating with the library
on teaching initiatives –reapply a similar model….
A sustainable, regenerating approach to engagement
Mistakes and Lessons Learnt
Not all smooth sailing!
• First classes poorly planned
• Standard of students’ work
• Planning aspects…
Advice & Recommendations
Recipe for success – takeaway messages :
• Exploit your USPs – strength in Special Collections, IL teaching
• Fun! Make it sellable
• Cross-faculty/inter-disciplinary appeal – a multi-team
• An organic approach works best - grab all further opportunities to
expand and develop
• Multi-faceted and holistic nature is what made the project
unique and grabbed attention – “what’s in it for me” factor
• Look for sustainable models - HM has now provided us with a
model that we hope to adapt with other departments
What have you learnt…?
1) What was William Turner otherwise known as?
2) Why did Elizabeth Blackwell produce her herbal?
3) Give one example of current research into herbs
that is going on at Newcastle University