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History of the Mortimer Rare Book Collection

The Mortimer Rare Book Collection contains Smith College’s rare books and literary manuscripts. The collection scope is chronologically and geographically broad, with substantial holdings in English and American literature, botany, history of science, economics, early children's literature, English drama and political pamphlets, early lithographic books, and artists’ books.

Smith College created its first Rare Book Room in the 1937 addition to Neilson Library, where it was located on the first floor mezzanine. In the 1962 Neilson Library renovation, the Rare Book Room was enlarged and moved to the third floor to accommodate further growth. It was renamed the Mortimer Rare Book Room in 1994, in honor of curator and teacher Ruth Mortimer, who significantly broadened collection use for teaching and learning. Now known as the Mortimer Rare Book Collection, the collection continues to grow and contribute to the curriculum as part of Smith College Special Collections. A History of the Mortimer Rare Book Room is forthcoming.

Curators

Shannon Supple, curator 2017-

Shannon Supple, Curator of Rare BooksShannon K. Supple joined Smith College Libraries as Curator of Rare Books in March 2017. She strives to develop, support, and promote collections and services that connect people to historical and cultural materials and to facilitate research, scholarship, and creative endeavors. Her research interests include disseminations of knowledge and the interplay between histories of the book, art, and science.

Supple looks forward to stewarding the Mortimer Rare Book Collection into the future, as we transition to a new library building, unite with College Archives and the Sophia Smith Collection, and broaden the voices and perspectives we steward.

 

 

Martin Antonetti, curator 1997- 2016

Martin Antonetti, curator 1997- 2016Martin Antonetti brought to Smith his passion for books and manuscripts—from the medieval to the modern—and the desire to share his knowledge about them and enthusiasm for them with others. He sought to broaden the reach of the Mortimer Rare Book Room (MRBR), within Smith and beyond; he and associate curator Karen Kukil made approximately seventy class presentations and other lectures each year. Antonetti also was the founder and director of the Book Studies Concentration, based in the MRBR , and he taught full-semester courses in the history of the book and in contemporary artists’ books for the Smith Art Department, using materials from the rare book collections.

Antonetti has written and lectured on many aspects of book arts, including fine printing, letterforms, bookbinding, and book collecting. He came to Smith College from his position as librarian and director of the Grolier Club in New York City, the country’s premiere organization for bibliophiles. He also is on the faculties of the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School and the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science. A classicist by training, he received his library degree from Columbia University in New York, where he specialized in rare books and special collections.

One of Antonetti’s scholarly interests is the work of the 16th-century writing master and printer Ludovico degli Arrighi. Antonetti’s research included collaboration with Zoe Mindell, class of 2008, who examined an original manuscript in Madrid while on a break from her Junior Year Abroad in Florence. Antonetti’s investigation of Arrighi’s work resulted in the publication of “New Clues to the Early Life of Arrighi” in the summer 2012 issue of The Book Collector. His research on Arrighi continues. In July 2016, Antonetti became Director of Distinctive Collections at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

Michèle Cloonan, curator 1995-1996

Michèle Cloonan, curator 1995-1996After Ruth Mortimer’s death at the end of January 1994, assistant curator Karen Kukil served as interim curator of rare books until the arrival of Michèle Cloonan in August 1995. Cloonan brought a fresh perspective to some procedures in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, and she continued Ruth Mortimer’s tradition of teaching undergraduates using original materials from the collection.

Cloonan organized “Books Illustrated,” a two-day symposium in 1996, honoring Ruth Mortimer’s work at Smith as a curator, teacher, and collector. The program included presentations in areas of particular interest to Mortimer by long-time friends and former colleagues. An exhibition, “Speakers Illustrated,” highlighted the work of all participants in the symposium.  A keepsake featured three haiku written by Mortimer and an origami crane, both housed in a box covered with paste papers made by Elisabeth Hyder of Brookfield, MA. A printed booklet collected highlights of individual speakers’ talks and panel discussions.

Ruth Mortimer, Curator 1975-1994

Ruth Mortimer, curator 1975-1994

In 1975 Ruth Mortimer assumed the duties of full-time curator of rare books at Smith. During her tenure, Smith’s collections of books and manuscripts grew exponentially both through gifts and with purchases from endowed funds, the first of  which was established just two years earlier in 1973. Mortimer also negotiated for faculty status for the curator’s position; she was a lecturer in the Art Department. The Composition of Books (Art 261a) was a trailblazer in teaching book and illustration history to undergraduates using original materials. This seminar was offered from 1978 through the fall of 1993, just two months before Mortimer's death on January 31, 1994. The Rare Book Room was named in her honor before her death.

Bibliographer Thomas Tanselle has noted that in the second half of her career Mortimer had less time for the sustained work of scholarship and writing that resulted in the Harvard catalogues. Yet, in addition to overseeing collection development, exhibitions, researchers, and teaching at Smith, Mortimer produced “a considerable number of exemplary essays, reviews, and lectures.” Her passion for iconography led to A Portrait of the Author in Sixteenth-Century France (1980), and to a posthumously published monograph on printed Italian sixteenth-century portraits. Ruth Mortimer notes that the portrait of St. Catherine of Siena is “of special interest for students of typography rather than iconography” because the printed words on the book and on the heart mark the first appearance of the publisher Aldus’ new italic type.

Ruth Mortimer had interests beyond the Renaissance. She collected letters and verses by the Victorian writer Harriet Prescott Spofford (now in Smith’s manuscript collections). She was particularly intrigued by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; in 1976 she acquired a three-volume first edition (printed in 1818) for Smith. She wrote “Frankenstein: A Publishing History,” one of four essays printed in the 1983 Pennyroyal Press edition of Frankenstein, and she amassed her own collection of modern editions of the novel, many of them illustrated paperbacks. Her Frankenstein collection of books and ephemera, now in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, is used extensively by classes here.

Dorothy King, Curator 1946-1974

Dorothy King, Curator 1946-1974Dorothy 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.)

Mary E. Dunham, 1920-1942

Mary E. DunhamMary 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.”