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Ida Emily Leeson (1885–1964)

by Baiba Berzins

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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, née Emberson. Ida's schooling began at Kogworth 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 B.A. in 1906 with second-class honours in history, then worked briefly as a teacher in private schools at Bowral and Potts Point.

Teaching, however, did not attract her and 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 reorganized the library's senior management, reducing the status and salary of the Mitchell librarian. The move was criticized, 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 organized and described. The 1930s were also a time of celebration: important exhibitions were mounted for the 1936 centenary of Mitchell's birth and for the 1938 150th anniversary celebrations. For the former, Ida Leeson produced The Mitchell Library, Sydney: Historical and Descriptive Notes, a definitive guide.

The outbreak of war in 1939 prevented Ida Leeson being sent overseas to film records relating to the South Pacific in British and European repositories. The library's most valuable items were transferred to the country for safe-keeping; staff resources were limited and stretched; the library had to cut its opening hours; there were complaints about the curtailing of services. After the establishment of General MacArthur's headquarters in Melbourne in 1942, the dearth of intelligence information about the Pacific led to frequent requests to the library for assistance from sections of the Allied Intelligence Bureau.

In April 1944 Lieutenant-Colonel A. A. Conlon secured Ida Leeson's secondment 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 J. K. 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. Towards the end of the war she became archivist-librarian for the School of Civil Affairs (from 1946 Australian School of Pacific Administration). 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).

After 1956 Ida Leeson continued to research for universities and private bodies and was generous with advice and assistance on a large variety of matters. She died on 22 January 1964 at Castlecrag and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Ida Leeson was awarded King George V's silver jubilee medal in 1935. She survives indelibly in the numerous published acknowledgments to her assistance, in her many published and unpublished works (only some of which bear her name), and in the collections whose destinies she guided.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Martin, Ida Leeson: A Life (Syd, 2006)
  •  J. J. M. Thompson (compiler), Alfred Conlon, 1908-1961 (Syd, 1963)
  • J. Kerr, Matters for Judgement (Melb, 1978)
  • Public Library of New South Wales, Annual Report, 1932-46
  • Australian Library Journal, June 1964, p 98
  • Ida Leeson papers (State Library of New South Wales)

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Baiba Berzins, 'Leeson, Ida Emily (1885–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ida Leeson, 1933

Ida Leeson, 1933

State Library of New South Wales, 889868

Life Summary [details]


11 February, 1885
Leichhardt, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


22 January, 1964 (aged 78)
Castlecrag, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service