Mortimer Rare Book Room History

The Rare Book Room as a Teaching Laboratory

The rare book collection at Smith always has been shaped to support the curriculum. Eunice Wead taught using the collection in 1945-47. Dorothy King reported to the library in May 1949 on an “experiment” to determine whether or not it would be practical or suitable to use the Rare Book Room as a classroom for an art department course on the art of typography, likely taught by Clarence Kennedy. Miss King concluded that the small reading room, with one table, was not adequate for regular class meetings each week, and she also was concerned about wear and tear on the printed books. She recommended: “If a laboratory collection is needed it should be gathered together as a special library outside the rare book room.” Yet, she also stated that “great numbers of students can learn much from the fine books which the Library now owns.” Dorothy King did provide access to materials in the Rare Book Room by students and faculty, although she closely supervised and somewhat limited opportunities for close scrutiny. The opening of the spacious reading room in 1962 allowed for increased use of the collection.

Manuscripts and Rare Books in an Undergraduate Library in Wilson Library BulletinRuth Mortimer’s arrival at Smith in 1975 brought a dramatic change in pedagogy in the Rare Book Room. In 1976 she first taught “The Composition of Books,” her very popular course offered through the fall of 1993. During this semester-long seminar—limited to 12 students—Mortimer and her class discussed the history of books, printing, and illustration, using original materials from the collection, which students were encouraged to handle carefully and examine during class and at other times in the rare book reading room. Students also set metal type and printed a keepsake each year. This practicum in letterpress printing continues to this day, just outside the rare book reading room. In 1983 Mortimer wrote about her extraordinary and unusual course offered to undergraduates, in the Wilson Library Bulletin. Ruth stated: “Undergraduates are surprised to learn that what they need in the Rare Book Room is not a note from their professor but intelligent curiosity. They are free to look at what interests them.”

Ruth Mortimer. “Manuscripts and Rare Books in an Undergraduate Library.” In Wilson Library Bulletin, October 1983, pages 107-110.
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Art  261a keepsakes

Michèle Cloonan (curator 1995-1996) taught a course similar to Ruth Mortimer’s. Martin Antonetti taught two courses in book arts during his time as curator from 1997-2016: “The Art and History of the Book” and “Artists Books in the 20th Century.” Students in the Book Studies Concentration (established in 2011) are required to take two courses in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, an introductory course and a senior-year seminar. Antonetti, associate curator Karen Kukil, and other members of the rare book staff also offer instruction each year to scores of Smith classes and outside groups in many fields of study. A growing selection of objects demonstrating the arts of the book—printing plates and blocks, bookbinding models, etc.—are also used in teaching. Exhibitions throughout the year provide students and the general public with a glimpse into Smith’s varied collections; sometimes students themselves curate exhibitions.

"Composition of Books" printed keepsakes [Click on image to enlarge]

The Book Studies Concentration (BKX) bookmark exemplifies its broad scope from the past to the future: one side features ornamented 19th-century typefaces while the other has a QR code which is linked to the BKX website.
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BKX bookmark