Obituary: Joan Primrose Scott Ferguson MBE, librarian

Joan Ferguson. Picture: Contributed
Joan Ferguson. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 15 September, 1929, in Edinburgh. Died: 2 October, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 84.

JOAN Primrose Scott Ferguson was born just over 84 years ago to parents William and Janet Ferguson, who lived at Clarebank Crescent in Restalrig, Edinburgh.

Clarebank Crescent was close to William Ferguson’s work in the Baltic grain trade. William was an elder in the Glasite church and the Ferguson family attended services in the Glasite meeting hall in Barony Street. Joan was an only child and the long Sunday services (which included a communal meal) played a big part in her life. She attended George Watson ­Ladies College and she remembered the school moving from George Square to ­Colinton Road during the Second World War. After school, she studied for an MA in Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh.

After graduating in 1951 Joan went on to take a secretarial course. In 1952 she became the secretary to the Librarian of the Scottish Central Library in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket. In the 1950s and 1960s the Scottish Central Library (now part of the National Library of Scotland) hosted the Scottish Union Catalogue and acted as Scotland’s main inter-library lending resource – it was a vital information transfer link in pre-internet days.

While at the Scottish Central Library, Joan studied for a library qualification and, in 1954, she became an Associate of the Library Association. More qualifications led to promotion and Joan became the chief assistant in the Lawnmarket building. Her duties included updating and compiling the card list of Scottish family histories and in 1960 her first book (Scottish Family Histories held in Scottish ­Libraries) was published. This book was important to genealogists and Joan was an obvious choice when a Scottish Central Library representative on the Scottish Genealogy Society was needed – the start of a long ­association.

In 1966 she became the librarian of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. In the 1960s the RCPE Library was a modern medical library and its core business was supplying up-to-date information to the fellows and members of the college. It was central to college activities. Miss Ferguson quickly became invaluable – not easy in what was then a very male environment and especially difficult when following on from two influential male librarians (Jolley and Pendrill) who later took up major positions in Australia and Canada.

There were many RCPE achievements (Joan had a real customer service ethos not shared by all librarians) but Miss Ferguson might have singled out her contribution to Professor WS Craig’s monumental 1,100-page History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Without Joan’s knowledge of the primary material and her impressive editing abilities this invaluable work might never have been completed – particularly as Prof Craig died before its publication. What is also remarkable is that despite Prof Craig’s unexpected death the book was actually published early rather than as scheduled to coincide with the college’s tercentenary. Joan played a major role in planning and organising the 1981 celebrations.

Miss Ferguson had a knack of getting on with people and was especially friendly with another influential member of the RCPE staff, college cashier Marjorie (Maisie) Lownie. These two had some adversaries and there were long term (and frankly very entertaining) battles with a succession of bursars and officers who were guilty of “letting standards slip”. Joan and Maisie almost always won. Miss Ferguson loved attending college dinners and as Miss Lownie was in charge of the seating plans she was always assured of entertaining dinner companions. Joan was very friendly with her counterpart at the Library of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Dorothy Wardle, who she regularly met for Thursday night suppers at the Edinburgh University staff club.

Joan’s interest in history ensured she planned for the needs of future historians and she did an immense amount of behind-the-scenes conservation work which has greatly extended the life of the college’s collection. Shortly before her retiral in 1994 the RCPE showed its appreciation by making her a fellow of the college – there are few non-medical fellows. She served under seven honorary librarians: William Alister Alexander; JDS Cameron; Sir Ian Hill; Chalmers Davison; Bryan Ashworth; Andrew Doig; and David Lawson.

In the 1980s Joan also found time to publish more books – in 1984 the Directory of Scottish Newspapers and in 1986 the revised, expanded edition of Scottish Family Histories. She was also a contributor to the Companion to Scottish Culture and a member of the Scottish Records Advisory Council from 1987–93. Joan was secretary to the Scottish Genealogy Society and for many years hosted council meetings in her home before the SGS had premises. She was influential in the set-up of the SGS library. The society was very grateful for the time and resources she freely gave and her MBE (awarded in 1997) was for services to genealogy. She had significant research talent herself and traced her own Scott ancestry back to 1775.

She had many friends outside work, played a big role in passing on the historic Glasite meeting hall to the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, attended concerts at the Usher Hall and was keen on gardening. Joan holidayed in Iona, which always seemed to involve perilous car journeys – she was not a natural driver and didn’t really fit into the computer age. Joan was from an analogue era and her large office was a celebration of paper-based research. It could appear disorganised with books and archives piled everywhere but Joan knew where everything was thanks to her remarkable memory which sadly deserted her after a long and happy retirement.

Her last years were spent as a very well-looked after resident of Laverock Care home in Trinity. She never married and since the 1950s had lived in Howard Place with her parents. Her father died in 1985, aged 88, and her mother in 1994, aged 91.