Ida Emily Leeson (1885-1964), librarian, was born on 11 February 1885 at Leichhardt, Sydney, daughter of Thomas Leeson, carpenter from Canada, and his native-born wife Mary Ann, nee Emberson. Ida’s schooling began at Kegworth Public School and, after the award of a bursary, she attended Sydney Girls’ High School in 1898–1902. She won a scholarship to the University of Sydney and graduated BA in 1906.
On 27 August 1906, she was appointed library assistant at the Public Library of New South Wales. As a result of David Scott Mitchell's bequest, the library had acquired his invaluable collection of Australian and Pacific material. Ida Leeson was transferred to the Mitchell Library in 1909 and was one of the pioneers who sorted the collection. In July 1916 she was promoted senior cataloguer, Mitchell Library, and, in June 1919, to one of the Public Library's senior positions, principal accessions officer.
Although responsible for developing the book resources of the library as a whole, Ida Leeson maintained her interest in Australian and Pacific materials. During a visit to Britain in 1927, she reported on manuscripts relating to the area in the Public Record Office and other British repositories. She scored a coup by discovering, in the P.R.O., the original of the allegedly missing third volume of Matthew Flinders’ 1801–08 log.
In December 1932 Ida Leeson was appointed second Mitchell librarian. 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.
Under Ida Leeson's direction the Mitchell Library, in the 1930s, consolidated its position as the pre-eminent repository of Australian and Pacific documents. Numerous important historical and contemporary collections were acquired; the library’s role as the New South Wales State archival agency was considerably expanded; the manuscripts in the collection were organised and described. Ida Leeson was awarded King George V’s silver jubilee medal in 1935.
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 Conlon's ‘think-tank’ which included such people as (Sir) John Kerr and JK Murray. Later, Ida Leeson referred to Conlon as a ‘life-changer’. She did not return to the Mitchell although she did not officially resign until April 1946. In mid-1949 she went to Noumea to establish the library for the South Pacific Commission. She returned in April 1950 but continued to work for the commission’s social development section in Sydney until 1956, compiling A Bibliography of Bibliographies of the South Pacific (1954).
Ida Leeson died on 22 January 1964 at Castlecrag.
Further reading: Ida Leeson: a Life. Not a Blue-stocking Lady by Sylia Martin (Allen & Unwin, 2006). Sylvia Martin was the winner of the CH Currey Memorial Fellowship in 2002.
The Library congratulates the many women throughout history who have played a part in the evolution of gender equality.