Belle da Costa Greene, an Extraordinary Librarian

I finally bought a copy of this. I had hoped it would be released in trade paperback at a lower price but a year later the hardcover is still the only thing available. It was too long for an interlibrary loan–I wanted to savour the details, particularly as they relate to librarianship. I used to work in a library and did the purchasing and collection development for the adult library, so I want to know about Belle and a library system I respect in the Morgan Library.

I really admire this lady. She turned up in a biography of J.P. Morgan I read and also a book I am reading currently A Heavenly Craft : The Woodcut in Early Printed Books by Daniel De Simone (editor).

There are so many illuminated manuscripts in the Morgan Library, and that is one of my passions; I have bought many books and art reproductions on the subject, so consider this biography of Belle da Costa Greene part of that larger collection of mine.

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2 Responses to Belle da Costa Greene, an Extraordinary Librarian

  1. artandhistory says:

    Did you see my review of this book on my blog? Given your background and interests I’d really be interested in your thoughts.

    Marilyn R.

  2. JJ ColourArt says:

    I’ve got a short review of the book in last year’s Books I am Reading list. I’ll copy it here for you:

    I was fascinated by her father’s contribution to society as explained in the book. I am quite sure Morgan knew she was black, but gave her a chance because she was bright and capable, and he felt a proprietary affection if not love for her. I imagine her humour and talent for developing the library collection brightened the later years of his life.

    I too found the book repetitious, but there is scant information from Belle herself as she destroyed her correspondence. Even the author herself says she had a problem piecing together things without these original sources, and had to use records and letters in which there were serious gaps.

    I don’t understand your focus, even distaste, about the author’s emphasis on Belle’s passing as white. Why would anyone be shocked? I didn’t see it as “…supplying a unifying subtext to all the varied facets of this brilliant, witty, and adventurous woman’s life.” I saw it as a fact not a subtext, and an interesting one compared to how we view race today.

    With the intellect she had, Belle still had to pass as white to succeed, and she sometimes used vigorous manipulation to do that. So what? It was a part of Belle’s life, something she herself focused on quite a bit in the early days, and such information would belong in a biography.

    Why the need to rewrite history or de-emphasize a central aspect of the subject’s life? She passed as white, it’s part of the biography, rightly so, and weaves its way through all her personal relationships, including casual and business ones.

    Your comment : “She has compiled the information, but it will be up to someone else to tell Greene’s story as it deserves to be told.”

    Someone else could compile a rewritten history of Belle da Costa Greene and omit or downplay the subject’s need to hide her race, in a reflection of our current trends in political correctness. However, that ambiguity toward fact would not be a biography, it would be fiction.

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