Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Dorothy King, curator 1946-1974

Dorothy King, Curator of Rare Books, died in Cincinnati on September 25 after a brief illness. She leaves her mark on the William Allan Neilson Library collection of rare books as perhaps no other Curator will ever do: she developed and cared for the collection from the time it was housed in a small caged area of the Library’s stacks until it was moved to the handsomely appointed Rare Book Room which was built to her exacting specifications.

Smith Alumnae Quarterly, November 1974

Dorothy King 1952

Photograph of Dorothy King (1952)
from the Smith College Archives
[Click on image to enlarge]

Dorothy King was born July 11, 1914 in Northville, Michigan. She attended the University of Cincinnati and in 1938 joined the staff of its library. She moved to Ann Arbor in 1941 to work as a cataloguer at the University of Michigan Library while earning her Library School degree. Her love of rare books led her to the position of Assistant Curator of Rare Books at Michigan in 1943. King knew Eunice Wead—professor in the library school and curator of rare books—in Michigan, and perhaps Wead—who taught book history at Smith from 1945-1947—encouraged her to apply to become the curator of rare books at Smith, a position King assumed in 1946.

When  King came to Smith, she found that the previous curator, Marion Brown, had left to serve in the Canadian military during the war, which essentially stopped progress on the recently-formed rare book collection. King proceeded to build up these holdings with great speed, taking the Rare Book Room from fewer than 2,000 volumes in 1946 to more than 7,000 volumes in 1974 (The present collection includes approximately 45,000 books and manuscripts.)

The closing paragraphs of King’s obituary attest to her lasting impact on special collections at Smith:

She was particularly proud of the quality of the collection and that such major portions of it had come as gifts rather than purchases. Philosophically, she believed that a rare book collection is effective in teaching only if it is used and that under proper supervision and circumstances it can be used without damage or harm to the books. Miss King succeeded in creating a representative collection of rare books which have been and will be in the future years used to support the curriculum. …

Her dry wit, her integrity as a bibliophile, and her enormous respect for Smith as an institution will live on in the room that she created, cared for and loved.