The Belle da Costa Greene Professional Papers at the Morgan

Belle da Costa Greene was librarian for J. Pierpont Morgan from 1905–1913, J. P. Morgan Jr. from 1913–1924, and director at the Pierpont Morgan Library from 1924–1948. Her career spanned two world wars and the Great Depression. During her tenure, Greene saw women gain the right to vote and take on new job opportunities that they were previously denied. It was a period of American history ripe with innovation, but also deeply troubled politically, economically, and racially. This is what drew me to the story of Belle Greene and her work at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Thaw Case, Belle Greene and the Women of the Morgan, May 11 2022–January 8, 2023, Erica Ciallela, Belle Greene Fellow.

Contemporary belief holds that librarianship is a female-dominated field, but that is only part of the story. Special collections librarian leadership was and is a white male dominated field. During the early twentieth century, working with special collections and rare book collections was a scholarly endeavor, one to be undertaken by highly educated men and never by people of color. The late nineteenth century saw a move to professionalize librarianship, as specific schools and programs began to train the next generation of librarians. With that came the so-called “feminization” of public librarianship. Like teaching, librarianship came to be viewed as an acceptable profession for young women. Despite this move, the rare book world remained dominated by men with backgrounds in English and History, rather than in library sciences.1 Private collections and institutions were for the most part used by powerful, white men to discuss literature and world events over drinks and cigars. For example, the Grolier Club, a private literary society dedicated to book collecting, did not admit women in the early twentieth century. Their own librarian, who was a woman, had to ask permission to attend events due to a club rule saying women could not be members or attend events.

Belle da Costa Greene, along with many others, refused to be limited by what society believed they could do. One of the ways we know this about Greene is through the collection of her professional papers, housed here at the Morgan. Over the last two years, I have had the privilege of processing this archival collection as a Belle da Costa Greene Curatorial Fellow. Through her letters, we have access to a first-hand account of what it was like to be a woman at the forefront of one of the best-known collections in the world during Greene’s time.

Belle Greene, Autograph letter signed to Meta Harrsen, 21 October 1922, X2022.577. Archives of the Morgan Library & Museum.

The professional papers of Belle da Costa Greene are housed in 108 boxes, the contents of which cover her entire career at the Morgan. The letters are about everything from daily tasks, such as ordering typewriter ink, to the acquisition of some of the library’s most treasured objects. Putting these different pieces together, we learn who Greene was as a friend, mentor, director, and librarian. Her papers give us insight into how the Great Depression forced Greene to be even more scrupulous about what to acquire. Letters from book dealers during WWI give us details on daily life in Europe during the war. One WWII letter from Ernest T. DeWald, a medievalist and one of the Monuments Men, gives us a snapshot of what it was like trying to recover stolen art during the height of the war. One of the most remarkable aspects of these letters is seeing the respect that Greene gained over her long career. Upon her retirement in 1948, the art collector Rudolph Gutmann wrote to her,

“Allow me to say that your decision to retire means a great loss to the Morgan Library. I won’t forget meeting you at your desk, surrounded by art and culture.”2

How did Greene do it? How did she come to be seen as an equal of these men at the top of her field? She proved her knowledge, first with J. Pierpont Morgan, who began consulting the librarian on major acquisitions soon after she was hired in 1905. Greene knew who and when to ask for advice. She worked hard to stay ahead of the crowd, knowing what books were the best and what they were worth. Greene attended the Amherst Library School run by William Fletcher, a contemporary of Melvill Dewey. She took what she learned from Fletcher and combined that with a keen eye, running an institution that was said to be a “scholar’s dream.”3 She made the Morgan her life’s work, a legacy which is still evident today in the institution’s amazing collection. As Greene cultivated her professional friendships, word spread within the field about her knowledge, talent, and shrewd negotiation skills. With her 1911 purchase of the only complete copy of William Caxton’s printed edition of Le Morte d’ Arthur, her fate as one of the most prominent special collections librarians was sealed. Her professional papers document this journey, giving us a first-hand account of the rise of Belle da Costa Greene from J.P. Morgan’s librarian to director of the one the most renowned collections in the world. She did this all while being a Black woman in a deeply racist and segregated America.


Ernest Walter Histed, 1862-1947, Portrait of Belle Greene in profile 1910, ARC 2702

Belle Greene, Typed note to Meta Harrsen, accompanied by card with address, 23 February 1945, recto, X2022.576. Archives of the Morgan Library & Museum.


Greene did not decide to pass as white in order to work for J. Pierpont Morgan. That decision was made by her mother before 1905. Greene’s professional papers do not give us any insight on the family’s decision to pass or what it was like to live each day with a part of their identity unknown to others. What these papers do give us insight into is how she tried to provide access to collections, uplift other women librarians, and create exhibitions for a wide audience outside of the elite upper class. As I processed the papers, I wanted to find a letter that gave us her views on race, but I ended up with so much more: a look at a woman moving boldly through a man’s world. Confident in her decisions while also knowing when to seek advice, Greene was a visionary who believed that special collections weren’t just about collecting valuable pieces, but about allowing them to live and breathe and play a role in the education of the next generation. We see a woman who during times of great national turmoil found ways to uplift her staff, colleagues, and the greater special collections community. As an archivist and public historian, I have come to terms with the fact that there are many archival silences, especially when it comes to Black women. The history of passing is often undocumented, so it is not surprising to have so little on the subject when it comes to Greene. We must look at what she wanted us to see, and how she wanted to be remembered. Her professional papers are what she chose to leave behind, and in them is a legacy worthy of being explored and honored.

Erica Ciallela
Exhibition Project Curator and former Belle da Costa Greene Curatorial Fellow
The Morgan Library & Museum


  1. Rossman, Jae Jennifer. 2022. “Changing Attitudes Toward Access to Special Collections.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 110 (3 THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF LIBRARIES): 127–50.
  2. Rudolph Gutmann to Belle da Costa Greene, 24 November, 1948. The Professional Papers of Belle da Costa Greene and Early Institutional Records. ARC 3291, Box 12, Folder 4. The Morgan Library & Museum.
  3. Walter S. Cook to Belle da Costa Greene, 1944. The Professional Papers of Belle da Costa Greene and Early Institutional Records. ARC 3291, Box 6, Folder 12. The Morgan Library & Museum.
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