State Library of NSW
When Ida Emily Leeson (1885–1964) became the first female Mitchell Librarian in 1932, she cut a distinctive figure. A small woman with short-cropped hair, steel-rimmed glasses, tailored suits and sensible shoes, she walked quickly and spoke in a deep voice. Although the best qualified for her position, her appointment was opposed because of her gender, working-class background and unorthodox choice of partner.
Ida was born on 11 February 1885 at Leichhardt, Sydney, the daughter of Thomas Leeson, a carpenter from Canada, and his Australian-born wife Mary Ann nee Emberson. Ida’s schooling began at Kegworth Public School and, after being awarded a bursary, she attended Sydney Girls’ High School from 1898 to 1902. She won a scholarship to the University of Sydney and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1906.
On 27 August 1906 she was appointed as a library assistant at the Public Library of New South Wales. In 1909, when the Library acquired David Scott Mitchell’s invaluable collection of Australian and Pacific material through his bequest, Ida was transferred to the new Mitchell Library and was one of the pioneers who sorted the collection.
It was also in 1909 that Ida met Florence Birch, a YWCA official. Opposites in appearance and personality, the two became inseparable. Through the rest of Ida’s life, Florence was her constant companion, accompanying her on official functions and overseas trips.
In December 1932 Ida Leeson was appointed the second Mitchell Librarian, the second most senior position in the organisation. The trustees had no qualms about her qualifications for the job but, reluctant to appoint a woman to a position in which she would be the obvious successor as principal librarian, they reorganised the Library’s senior management, reducing the status and salary of the Mitchell Librarian. The move was criticised, in vain, by feminists such as Jessie Street.
In April 1944 Leeson was seconded to the position of research officer in the Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs), as a captain, then major, in the Australian Military Forces. She was a key member of the director Alfred Conlon’s high-profile ‘think-tank’ and later referred to Conlon as a ‘life-changer’. She did not return to the Mitchell Library, although she did not officially resign until April 1946. In mid-1949 she went to Noumea to establish a library for the South Pacific Commission. She returned to Sydney in April 1950 where she continued to work for the commission’s social development section until 1956, compiling A Bibliography of Bibliographies of the South Pacific (1954).
Ida and Florence were still together when Florence died in 1957. Ida died on 22 January 1964.
While Ida Leeson’s public life is well documented, there are few records that help us tell the story of Ida the person. Her brother destroyed most of her papers after her death, and her Library personnel file is lost. One place where Ida’s memory is preserved is in the Mitchell Library catalogue cards, which you can find written in her elegant hand.