Mrs. Leila Forbes Clark Working at Desk

“Muse of Scientific Literature”: Leila Forbes Clark

Leila Gay Forbes Clark, Director of Smithsonian Libraries from 1942 to 1957, was the second woman to direct the library at the Smithsonian.

In honor of Women’s History Month and the 50th anniversary of Smithsonian Libraries, let’s learn about Leila Gay Forbes Clark (1887-1964), the second woman to direct the Smithsonian’s library.  She was beloved by the researchers she worked with (really loved in one case….) and began the restructuring of the many small libraries across the Smithsonian. 

Mrs. Leila Forbes Clark Facing Camera

Leila Gay Forbes was born in Canton, New York, in 1887, the daughter of the dean of the Divinity School at St. Lawrence University, Henry Prentiss Forbes, who was also a Universalist minister, and Harriet E. Wood, niece of the first University president.  Forbes attended St. Lawrence herself, receiving her B.S. from the College of Letters and Science in 1908, and set off on a life devoted to books.  In 1911, she received her library degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. By 1913, she was a member of the American Library Association and a library assistant at Wellesley College. She then was a librarian at State Normal School in Montclair, New Jersey, and at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia.  In the 1920s, she joined the staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then in 1929 was appointed assistant librarian in charge of reference at the Smithsonian Library where she spent the rest of her career.

 Black and white image of Austin Clark sitting at his desk, which is covered in piles of papers and m

In 1933, she married the Smithsonian U.S. National Museum’s curator of echinoderms, Austin Hobart Clark (1880-1954), a polymath not known for keeping a neat desk, and they set off on a life of adventure. Over the next two decades, they explored over 800 locations in the Virginia countryside for every species of butterflies they could find. Traveling in their venerable Ford, dubbed “Henrietta,” they camped with the many young naturalists they took under their wings. After two decades of searching, they coauthored the definitive work, The Butterflies of Virginia, in 1951.

William and Lucy Mann Meeting Austin and Leila Clark

At work, Leila Clark was devoted to the Smithsonian libraries – a central library, supplemented by a U.S. National Museum Library as well as small libraries in every department and division, from art to astrophysics to ethnology to entomology to mechanical technology to the National Zoo.  She advanced to director of the Smithsonian Library in 1942 during World War II.  For the Smithsonian’s centennial in 1946, she prepared a history of “The Library of the Smithsonian Institution” for the journal Science’s issue celebrating the anniversary.  She noted the library collection now numbered over 250,000 volumes.  Over the next few years, she oversaw the merger of the central Smithsonian Library with the U.S. National Museum Library, a major change in operations to centralize services and improve efficiency.  That process later culminated in the centralized Smithsonian Libraries system created fifty years ago.

Her retirement in 1957 was marked by a large party in the Regents Room of the Castle.  Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael made remarks and Smithsonian Editor Paul H. Oehser penned a poem in her honor: 

                Let’s now open a bottle of Cutty Sark,*
                And drink to the health of Leila F. Clark,
                Who, as you know, from time well-Devonian
                Has been Librarian at the Smithsonian.
                Nee Forbes, she searched but scorned common grist
                And married that well-known scientist
                Sir Austin, respected, magnanimous and wise,
                Engrossed in echinoids and butterflies;
                While she, guarding the volumes on the S.I. shelves,
                Found joy in helping those who help themselves.
                With dignity, sureness, modesty, and style,
                She’s done her stint for a long, long, long, long while;
                With motives always kind and purpose pure,
                The Muse of Scientific Literature.
                As gold is to brass, as silver is to pewter,
                She stands – so let us all salute her…
                Librarian superb, par excellence,
                We’ll miss her from these ancient ivied haunts.
                Lift up the glass, sans further circumlocution,
                To the best-loved lady in the Institution;
                We love her for her gracious guileless ways,
                And envy now the freedom of her days…
                A sad commentary indeed up on the human race
                That there’s really nobody who can take her place!
                *Champagne would be better, but it doesn’t rhyme.
                  We’ll use champagne another time.

Smithsonian Torch, September 1957


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