Smithsonian staff and volunteers work countless hours in the halls of our museums and research centers, in the field, at the Zoo, in our gardens and facilities. We are privileged to spend time with some of the nation’s most cherished treasures as we go about our duties. Sometimes, these unique experiences find a special place in our own personal stories. Amy Kehs introduces Mary Augusta Thomas and a few of her favorite things.
This is a special year for Smithsonian Libraries as the unit celebrates its 50th anniversary. Of course, libraries have been a part of the Smithsonian Institution for much longer than 50 years, but the current unified system was established by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in 1968. The 21 21 libraries in the Smithsonian museums and research centers comprise a collection of more than two million volumes. I thought it was only fitting for this anniversary year to talk to Mary Augusta Thomas, the Smithsonian Libraries Deputy Director, and find out her favorite things at the Smithsonian.
In 1976, the Smithsonian was looking for people to work on its newly-acquired Dibner Library, a collection of rare books and manuscripts that had been donated to the Smithsonian for America’s Bicentennial celebration. A young Mary Augusta visited the Smithsonian several times, determined to convince the Institution that she was the best woman for the job. Her persistence finally paid off and she began her long career at the Smithsonian in the Dibner Library. She has now been with Smithsonian Libraries for 42 years, serving as Deputy Director since 2002.
Prior to coming to the Smithsonian, Mary Augusta attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then the University of York in England, where she earned her degree in medieval studies. A passionate lover of lifelong learning, she continued her education while working at the Smithsonian and received a second degree in library science from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
With her background in medieval studies, it’s no wonder that Mary Augusta’s first Smithsonian favorite is the Smithsonian Institution Building, itself, affectionately known as the Castle. The Castle was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr. and was built with sandstone from nearby Seneca Creek in Maryland. It is an example of Norman style architecture and was completed in 1855.
“I love coming to work every day and getting to see the Castle,” says Mary Augusta. “I probably have more than my fair share of Castle photos on my phone. It is just so cool!”
The history of the Castle is fascinating. It has served as a home to past Smithsonian Secretaries and its grounds have housed both bison and space rockets. It has also survived war, fire and many renovations. In fact, the Castle is so iconic that it has been a setting for many fictional stories in books and movies. One of these is “The Lost Order,” written by Steve Berry, New York Times best-selling author and Smithsonian Libraries advisory board member. Mary Augusta actually appears as half of a character in the book. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to put it on your summer reading list and be on the lookout for Mrs. Thomas’ namesake!
Mary Augusta’s second Smithsonian favorite is Bernhard von Breydenbach’s “Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land),” first published in 1486 and one of the earliest printed books in the Smithsonian collection.
“The book is magnificent for a few reasons,” explains Mary Augusta. “First, it includes the first detailed illustrations of some of the most important cities in Europe and the Middle East. Essentially, it was one of the first and best-selling travel books. Secondly, its amazing illustrations are drawn from a rare ‘birds eye view’ perspective above the cities.”
This 15th century bestseller went through about 12 editions between 1486 and 1522. It was a “must have” book for those travelers that were planning their own trips to the Holy Land during that time period.
Mary Augusta’s third favorite thing at the Smithsonian is Ginny Stanford’s 1991 portrait of M.F.K. Fisher, which is on view at the National Portrait Gallery.
“I love that Stanford’s painting brilliantly depicts Fisher as a strong and determined woman,” says Mary Augusta.
Author Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher spent her life writing books and essays about food. Fisher’s prose is filled with imagery and inspiration and she is one of Mary Augusta’s favorite authors. Her books and essays include “How to Cook a Wolf” with advice on eating well using scant wartime rations, as well as her adventures with her well-known friends Julia Child and James Beard. She sat for Stanford’s portrait just a year before her death in 1992. Fisher also co-founded the Napa Valley Wine Library when she was having a hard time finding resources on the history of California wine for her writing.
Mary Augusta Thomas and her deeply rooted passion for the Smithsonian, books, libraries and history are so inspiring, I left our interview with a long list of books to read and even more appreciation for the Smithsonian Libraries and all that they do. Be sure to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary year and check out all of their upcoming anniversary activities!
Posted: 23 July 2018