Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Culling the Library Shelves for Rare Books

Marion Elizabeth Brown, a native of Ontario, worked in several Canadian libraries before she came to Smith in 1938 as an assistant cataloguer. During the 1941/42 academic year, she was given the task "to make a systematic search of the library for books which should be given special care" by librarian Mary Dunham. “These books, including fifteenth- and sixteenth-century items, formed the core of the present-day rare book collection. Brown remained at Smith until 1946 when she went to work in special collections at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

At the beginning of February 1943, Brown prepared a memorandum, "Duties of the Curator of rare books," for Sidney Norton Dean (1878-1943), professor of Greek at Smith. Brown stated that “work in the Rare book room is still in the developmental stage.” The list of six items indicates an ambitious program of investigation and selection of books from Neilson stacks, cataloguing items for the rare book collection, lubricating the leather bindings (a practice which has gone in and out of favor with rare book curators and conservators), helping students and faculty to consult rare books, and arranging exhibitions of books (although not exclusively rare books) in the main hall of Neilson Library. 

Typed guidelines for the “Care and use of books in the RARE BOOK ROOM” stipulate that rare books do not circulate to students;  however, it appears that some rare books (with a value less than fifty dollars) were available for faculty to use outside the building. The text also notes that the call number was not marked on the spine of the book, but typed on a slip of paper which was inserted in the book, projecting slightly beyond the cover (the method still in use at Smith). The part of the text which calls for perforating book pages has been struck through in pencil. A penciled note at the foot of the page, possibly written by Marion Brown, reads “Miss Weed [at Wellesley College] considers perforation unnecessary. Miss Dunham [Smith College Librarian] prefers it. Advisability questionable.” Shown here is a 16th-century edition of Catullus with a Smith College Library perforation, which was used decades ago but not currently, to indicate ownership and to discourage theft.

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Care and use of books memorandum

Memorandum and “Care and use of books”
from MRBR office files

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Catullus, … Tibullus, et Propertius.
With commentary and prefaces by Marc Antoine Muret. Venice: P. Manutius, 1558. Paulus Manutius was the third son of the great Italian Renaissance scholar-printer Aldus, whose name and dolphin and anchor printer’s mark appears on the title page. PURCHASED