Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Students Posed in the Rare Book Room

Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette of January 25, 1961, included this image of Dorothy King flanked by two Detroit-area students in the original rare book reading room . The student on the left is Margaret Anne Wilson, class of 1961 (died 1995). The other is Katharine Kyes, class of 1962.

Dorothy King and Katharine Leab
Photograph (1961) from the MRBR office files  [Click on image to enlarge]

Katharine Kyes Leab commented on this photograph in her speaker biography for the 2009 American Library Association Rare Books and Manuscripts Section pre-conference:

My introduction to special collections took place [in 1961]and was immortalized in [this] photograph. We were marched into the Rare Book Room at Smith College, frisked for writing instruments, directed to sit at a table and not touch anything, photographed, and marched back out. Never touched a book; never turned a page; not invited back.

Yet, most of Katharine Leab’s working life has been spent in “touching books and turning pages.” She is best known in the world of books for American Book Prices Current, an annual compilation of auction records for sales of books and manuscripts, which she has produced with her husband Daniel Leab since 1972. Mrs. Leab served as chair of the Smith College Friends of the Library in the 1970s; she relates that she

persuaded the college librarian [Billie Bozone] that she really did dare to ask the eminent bibliographer Ruth Mortimer to come from Harvard to Smith. Ruth revolutionized the Rare Book Room, welcoming students and using its resources to teach undergraduate courses.

Katharine Leab

Modern photograph of Katharine Leab
reproduced from an online image.

Dorothy King did see herself as a protector of the books, even as she aimed to make them available for teaching and research. Ruth Mortimer, the two curators who followed her (Michėle Cloonan and Martin Antonetti), and other members of Special Collections at Smith, certainly have made rare books and manuscripts more available to students. A primary goal of special collections at Smith is to teach undergraduates how to handle rare materials. The Mortimer Rare Book Room is not a museum of the book, but rather a widely-used collection of primary source materials.