Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Rare Books in Room 32

Dorothy King and Ruth Mortimer

For more than fifty years after its founding in 1871, Smith College first used Northampton’s Forbes Library and then a small library in Smith’s own Seelye Hall for student reading and research. In 1909, a new main library opened, which has seen a number of renovations and expansions during the past century. In 1937 the first addition to the library (added to the north of the central core building) included space dedicated to the College Archives (basement mezzanine) and to the fledging rare book collection (first floor mezzanine, room 32), sometimes referred to as the “Treasure” room. The rare book reading room was outfitted with glass-fronted wooden bookcases which lined the walls, as seen in the 1952 photograph with Curator Dorothy King and student Ruth Mortimer, class of 1953. (Ruth Mortimer followed King as curator of rare books from 1975-1994).

Photograph of Dorothy King (left) and Ruth Mortimer, 1952
from the Smith College Archives
[Click on image to enlarge]

Mezzanine floors (below) of heavy glass (some with decorative grillwork) were added between the main floors of the Library to create additional space. These floors were not removed until the library renovations of 1978-1982.

Neilson Library mezzanine Neilson Library mezzanine
Images of library stacks,1960s, from the Smith College Archives [Click on images to enlarge]

As early as 1947, fewer than ten years after the 1939 addition, proposals were made for expansion of the Library and reorganization of library departments and book stacks. In January 1955 Dorothy King submitted suggestions for creating a new and larger rare book section on a proposed second floor of the Library Chapel in the north wing. Her three-page “Tentative Suggestions” outlines general needs—air conditioning, humidity and heat controls, adjustable shelves, entrances and exits, lights, and soundproofing—and includes diagrams of the division of the entire space. She proposes a reading room, exhibition area, and an office and workroom with glassed-in walls for privacy and for supervision of the reading room. King’s plans called for keeping the present stack area for shelving of rare books. She also mentioned Room 32: “We consider the possibility of eventually giving up the present Reading Room and office quarters.”

No renovations occurred in the library until President Thomas Mendenhall began serious discussions for library expansion in 1960. Dorothy King’s thoughtful consideration of the rare book department’s needs and her detailed layouts became the basis for the new rare book room in the northwest addition to the Library, completed in 1962.

Tentative suggestions page 1 Tentative suggestions letter page 2 Tentative suggestions letter page 3
Dorothy King. “Tentative Suggestions for the Rare Book Room Quarters…” January 1 & 13, 1955 
from MRBR office files [Click on images to enlarge]