Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Rare Books at Smith before 1940

Mary E. Dunham

Mary Dunham, Smith College Librarian from 1920-1942, had a great interest in rare books. On February 14, 1939, Dunham addressed an Alumnae Council session, describing the work of a college library. A press release for this event notes that she spoke of the numerous collections in the Smith College Library and “of the treasures to be found in the Rare Book room,” a space created in the 1937 addition to Neilson Library, which she oversaw. Dunham also suggested that Smith would be “a most appropriate place for the development of a collection of books on prominent English and American women and their activities. … If the Friends of Smith College Library, which has been under consideration for several years, should eventually be organized, this is a field that would repay a collector’s effort.”

Margaret Storrs Grierson, class of 1922, became Smith College Archivist in 1940. In 1942 the Friends group was founded, and Grierson was appointed both the Executive Director of the Friends of the Smith College Library—a group which has enhanced the Smith College Libraries, including the rare book collections, through gifts and donations from alumnae and others—and Director of the newly-formed Sophia Smith Collection, an internationally-known women’s history archive. After her retirement, Mary Dunham corresponded with Margaret Grierson about their mutual interests of Smith College, the library, and the activities of the Friends.

Dunham’s passion for rare books led her to explore the handling of these materials elsewhere. A letter dated March 17, 1938, from the librarian at Wellesley College, indicates that Dunham had earlier inquired about the “treatment of rare books” in the Treasure Room there. She was informed that at Wellesley: “They [books] are bookplated and the accession number is written in pencil on the back of the title page. … they are not perforated anywhere. Books from the Treasure Room do not circulate except in rare cases.”

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Mary E. Dunham

Photo of Mary Dunham
from the 
Smith College Archives

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Letter from MRBR files

Letter to Miss Dunham, March 17, 1938 
(“Return to D.K.” at top written by Dorothy King,
curator or rare books 1946-1974) 
from MRBR office files