24th April, 2013
Anna Fidgeon (Digital Learnings Initiatives Librarian at California State University, Northridge) submitted this post and found the above photo on the State Library of New South Wales’s Flickr stream.
Ida Emily Leeson (1885-1964) was the first woman to be appointed the position of Mitchell Librarian in 1932. The appointment was wrought with controversy at a time when men dominated prestigious library positions in Australia. Born February 11, 1885 in Leichhardt to working-class parents, Leeson was a promising student who graduated with honors from the University of Sydney with a B.A. in history. After a very brief stint in teaching, Leeson began a position as a library assistant at the Public Library of New South Wales in 1906. In 1909, she was transferred to the Mitchell Library (a wing of what is now the State Library of New South Wales), where she processed David Scott Mitchell’s remarkable collection of “Australiana”. Leeson’s interest in Australian and Pacific materials grew as she worked up the ranks at the Mitchell Library, eventually landing the senior position of principal accessions officer in 1919.
In 1932, Leeson was appointed as a Mitchell Librarian, a position generally considered successor to the principal librarian. Now that a woman was appointed, library trustees reduced the status and salary of the Mitchell librarian. Controversy surrounded both the appointment of a woman to the position as well as the decision to reduce the position’s status. During her tenure at Mitchell Library, substantial collections and archives were acquired, including many Australian and Pacific documents. Leeson wrote “The Mitchell Library, Sydney: Historical and Descriptive Notes” for the library’s 150th anniversary celebration. In 1935, Leeson was awarded King George V’s silver jubilee medal .
Leeson had professional and personal relationships with many notable literary figures, and worked perhaps most closely with Miles Franklin. At one point, Leeson lived with her partner, Florence Birch, at a “bohemian enclave” owned by architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.
During wartime, Leeson was active in the Australian Military Forces, first as a research officer, then as captain, then as major. She worked closely with Lieutenant-Colonel A. A. Conlon. As war was ending, Leeson returned to libraries as an archivist-librarian for the School of Civil Affairs. She left for about a year, beginning in 1949 to start a library for the South Pacific Commission in Nouméa, New Caledonia. She continued work for the South Pacific Commission after her return and in 1954, assembled “A Bibliography of Bibliographies of the South Pacific”.
Leeson spent much of her later years doing private and university research. She died in 1964.
Baiba B. (1986). Leeson, Ida Emily (1885–1964). Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved March 8, 2013, from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leeson-ida-emily-7157/text12359
Martin, S. (2006). Ida Leeson: A life. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.
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