CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- The circular yard at Radcliffe College is lush and green and the buildings that ring it are stately and grand in the manner befitting a world-renowned school. In one of the more impressive brick buildings a brass plaque positioned to the right of the double doors reads "The Schlesinger Library" in bold lettering.

Inside the building, the silence and endless shelves of books are standard for any library but the thick, plush carpeting, and light, airy atmosphere, which is both warm and hospitable, distinguish the Schlesinger from most institutions of its kind. What further distinguishes it is that its contents deal solely with women.

The first floor is devoted to periodicals and reference books. The second story houses manuscripts, Radcliffe College Archives, and a comfortable reading room.

On the third floor, where books are stored, a full-size color photo of a beaming Julia Child introduces the beginning of the library's culinary collection. And there are thousands of cookbooks -- old, new, full-color, glossy, black and white, native American, international, charity and ring-bound community books.

There is the first edition of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" (1896) and "Housekeeping in Old Virginia," a 1879 publication that includes mutton hash from "Mrs. R." and baked calf's head from "Miss N." There's a book called "Recipes Out of Bilibid," a collection of recipes from Allies in a Phillipine prisoner-of-war camp compiled by Dorothy Wagner in 1946. ("No matter how the conversation began, it always turned to food, the food the prisoners had once relished and were determined to enjoy again ... ")

It is already an impressive collection, but it has recently become one of the most distinguished in the country with the acquisition of Child's personal cookbook collection and by the American Institute of Wine and Food's endowment of the Eleanor Lowenstein collection (which includes some invaluable 18th- and 19th-century French, British and American books).

The Schlesinger Library was established (then occupying a small part of the building it shared with the Bunting Institute) in 1943 when alumna Maud Wood Park, who had been active in the suffrage movement and had served as the first national president of the League of Women's Voters donated her papers. According to Patricia King, the Schlesinger's director since 1973, the papers contained an enormous amount of material about Park's own activities and others who were concerned about women's issues.

When King began her tenure as director, the library employed about six people and had a very limited collection. Today, there are 13 full-time employees as well as a host of student volunteers, 40,000 books in the stacks, including 7,000 cookbooks, and the library occupies the entire building.

More importantly perhaps, the Schlesinger has slowly acquired a national reputation as a vital institution specializing in the social history of American women, as well as a center devoted to the serious study of culinary history.

The first major impulse for collecting food books came from Barbara Solomon, a former director, who negotiated the gift of the Widener cookbook collection from the main Harvard library in 1962, explained King. Then King secured the collection of Samuel and Narcisse Chamberlain, avid collectors and authors of a number of French cookbooks.

King contends that books on food originally were collected to document social history and its lighter side. It is only in recent years, she says, that serious scholars of food history have begun to appear. One of its most enthusiastic supporters is Child, in addition to other prominent cooks, food writers, and culinary historians.

"The Schlesinger probably has one of the largest collections available to scholars," says Child. "And it's particularly important that we have it for culinary scholars because it is a fairly new discipline."

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a regular contributor to The New York Times, who is writing a book on ethnic American food, is also an ardent Schlesinger fan. "It is the only library that I know of that takes its culinary collection seriously and really recognizes it as an important aspect of social history," she says.

Chris Schlesinger is the great nephew of the late Arthur Schlesinger Sr., Harvard professor and Radcliffe trustee whose acceptance of Park's papers was the basis of starting the "Women's Archives." Chris Schlesinger is also the chef/co-owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge and coauthor of the newly published "Thrill of the Grill" (William Morrow and Company, Inc., $24.95). He began using the library in 1983 when he was a cook at the Harvest restaurant, another Cambridge eatery. He returned when he was researching his book two years ago. Today, with his sous chef in tow, he visits the library once a month to consult the books and develop the menu for his restaurant.

Barbara Wheaton is a nationally recognized culinary historian and newly appointed honorary curator of the culinary collection. "A library isn't just the books on the shelf," says Wheaton. "It's also the people who know the collection and Barbara Haber, the curator, is a wonderful guide. She has been a student of the women's movement for a very long time and she has a real appreciation for the things in the culinary collection and their value in social history. She also likes to cook which is great because she understands the books' immediate purpose."

A visit to Haber's comfortable office on the third floor confirms her appreciation of food. The room is filled with piles of cookbooks. On one table, a wire whisk, an aluminum brownie pan, and a bright print potholder left from a recent potluck dinner meeting of the Culinary Historians (a group that meets once a month to discuss food) lie neatly organized, waiting to be reclaimed by their owner. "I feel like my office is a big kitchen," she says. "Everyone comes through here at some point or another."

Haber, casual, relaxed and warm, is intimate with the entire Schlesinger collection, but one tends to feel that the cookbooks are somehow special to her.

"I arrived in 1968 and it was a very quiet place," she explained. "Not many people used the library. I intended to stay a year or two because it was the kind of position that would allow me to learn all aspects of library work. That was just before the women's movement came along and I had the wonderful privilege and fun of figuring out what a printed collection on American women should contain.

"I see the library as having two distinct collections and for some people they overlap," Haber says. "I'm really interested in the history of women and food and the whole relationship between the two."

Washington-based Joan Challinor, who is a research associate at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Schlesinger Library, agrees with Haber. "It would be foolish of us not to put food and culinary history into its proper perspective," she says. "That is one of the things that the library stresses. And the collection contains cookbooks representative of women across the spectrum -- not just of women who were famous and did important things. To understand women, you must allow this cross-section. And the food collection is extremely important because it allows you to see that women were in the kitchen and they were preparing particular foods for their families."

Some of the books also give a glimpse into how long it took women to prepare those foods. In "A Handbook of Cookery," published by William Heinemann, Ltd. in 1923, author Jessie Conrad recommends: "Cooking ought not to take too much of one's time. One hour and a half to two hours for lunch, and two and a half for dinner is sufficient."

The preface to the cookbook, written by author Joseph Conrad, Jessie's husband, eloquently justifies the purpose of cookbooks: "Of all the books produced since the most remote ages by human talents and industry those only that treat of cooking, are, from a moral point of view, above suspicion. The intention of every other piece of prose may be discussed and even mistrusted; but the purpose of a cookery book is one and unmistakable."

Although the library has been supported by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowments of the Humanities, as well as funds from Radcliffe College and private donors, the bulk of the culinary collection has been amassed through gifts from private collectors. Haber, as curator, oversees all of the acquisitions, and there are times when she has had a role in making the Schlesinger Library an appealing choice.

When Haber heard from sources that Grace Chiu, the famous Chinese cookbook author, had a 500-book collection that she wanted to donate to a library, she called Chiu and introduced herself and the library. Chiu was already being courted by a number of other institutions, but after conversations with Haber, she decided in favor of the Schlesinger. "With some people you just click," Haber admits. "With others, you don't. Besides, I had done some homework before we met and I had gotten the Harvard Yen-Ching Library to agree to accept the Chinese books in the collection. That way, all the books would be utilized."

Haber also actively searches for books; she is currently looking for foreign service cookbooks written by American women. Among others, her search has turned up a Girl Scout cookbook compiled by scout mothers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and one by the American Women's Association of Bahrain.

One of Haber's favorite books in the collection is "Tested Recipes for the Inexperienced Housewife," a charity cookbook compiled by the Ladies' Relief Corps of Framingham, Mass., after the Civil War. The preface quotes a letter from a "Baltimore lady," for a recipe for cooking husbands, "so as to make them tender and good." The passage instructs:

"In selecting your husband you should not be guided by the silvery appearance, as in buying mackerel, nor by the golden tint, as if you wanted salmon. Be sure to select him yourself, as tastes differ. Do not go to market for him, as the best are always brought to your door. It is far better to have none, unless you will patiently learn how to cook him ... . " Even with such jewels, the library is working to acquire more material. In addition, it is committed to introducing the collection to a wider audience.

"We want to identify the people who use the library," says Haber, "and ask them to help us open it up to those who might ordinarily not feel especially comfortable using the facilities. Now more than ever before, people are more interested in food history."

Nina Simonds is the author of "Chinese Seasons" (Houghton Mifflin) and "China's Food" (Harper and Row).