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Geoffrey Alley, Librarian: His Life & Work

Chapter 4 — Parnassus on Wheels

page 56

Chapter 4
Parnassus on Wheels

Alley's letter of appointment, signed by his obedient servant the Registrar of Canterbury College, said: 'You will be required to act under the Director of Extension Work, Professor J. Shelley, from whom you will receive all instructions. You will be required to organise and develop cultural facilities in rural districts, by taking charge of a travelling library, by getting into touch with such persons as can act as leaders of study circles, by the addressing of meetings, and by other means decided upon by the Director as likely to carry out the intentions of this Scheme for which a grant has been received from the Carnegie Corporation. You will also be responsible for the driving of the car and for keeping it in good repair. Your salary of £400 will include your personal expenses for board and lodging, but not the expenses in connection with the running of the car.'1 At the same time the registrar wrote to Shelley saying that the appointment would date from 1 January 1930, and adding that approval had been given for the purchase and adaptation of a car at an approximate cost of £116.2

Even as far back as 1930, nothing very state-of-the-art could be got for £116, but the stark fact was that, after allowing for what was then a good salary for a recent graduate, the initial book stock and equipment, and annual running expenses, very little was left from a budget of £1000 (including the government's matching subsidy). A Ford delivery van was bought for £30, and £90 was spent on its adaptation. This included the installation of shelving and the provision of a hinged opening on one side, much like Mifflin's Travelling Parnassus. The Ford was not a good buy – it was underpowered and it cost a lot to maintain – but at least it was ready for the road by 25 March 1930. It was replaced in 1933 by a new van built on a Morris commercial chassis, still underpowered but better than the Ford. As Alley said, a great deal of valuable information was learned from the experience of using these vehicles, but it was learned the hard way.3

The other major item of expenditure in 1930 was £236 for 1004 books. Materials such as gramophone records were borrowed from the box scheme, as were box scheme programmes for those groups which wished to have page 57them in place of general courses in drama, music, literature, current affairs, and economic problems given by the tutor-librarian.

Alley reported on the first two years of his work in his MA thesis, which he called 'An Experiment in Rural Adult Education'.4 It is important to remember that it was not originally conceived as a library operation, but as an exploration of ways in which adult education could be taken to rural areas. Twenty-six centres were selected for attention, of which only 13 had libraries – and of these only three, according to Alley, 'could be said to be alive and serving any cultural purpose'.5 Some were visited for evening meetings held by the tutor, who used all the kinds of material at his disposal, including books, reproductions, original paintings, and lecture notes. In other centres there were groups which met regularly under a local leader using box scheme material, and which were visited by the car library; and a third lot had only the car library visits. As the experiment proceeded, attempts were also made to reach participants through radio talks, under the watchful eye of the New Zealand Broadcasting Board, which insisted that controversial matters be avoided.6

Nevertheless, the library element of the experiment was crucial to its operation. The Carnegie Corporation, in a review of its grants for library interests, 1911–35, included it under this heading as well as pointing out that the home science project had many library implications.7 Alley himself, who had not previously been involved in library work, found that the lending of books from his small stock, which included a supplementary loan from the Canterbury Public Library, made up a very important element in his educational work.

In his thesis Alley commented on his experience with his group in Hororata. 'There were definitely two types of borrower here,' he wrote, 'one the villager who read lighter travel or novels, and the other the bookhungry sheep-farmer who read anything and everything, from biology to the philosophy of art. It would be a mistake to focus the Car Scheme on either of the two, but that course is not necessary, for both have been served from the same library.'8 Elsewhere in the thesis he wrote: 'Just how difficult and complex the calling of librarian can be has been realised by the writer in the last two years. To discover the book needs and wishes, and stimulate them if they were dormant, of nearly 500 people, is for one person an impossible task in sixteen months, even under favourable conditions. To have the right books on the shelves of the library, to be continually looking for additional books of the kind needed, to know something of the 1600 books in stock, all these taken together are tasks that can never be finished, and never done well enough.'9

In his report on his work in 1932, Alley said that he hoped that in 1933 the car scheme would, in addition to continuing the work of previous page 58years, endeavour to point the way to an intelligent library system for Canterbury.10 In 1933 he suggested that 'Perhaps the most important need in our time is a re-orientation of the common view of education, which looks upon that process as a matter of a year or two spent at school, instead of as a process of life itself. When the concept of education has become widened and deepened according to the latter view, the place in the rural community of institutions like the C.A.R. scheme will be permanent, and not until then.'11 And again, in the following year: 'The library work of the Car Scheme has developed to a point where a valuable service has been given to many bookless communities. The knowledge of the reading tastes and habits of hundreds of people, this too, must be counted as something of great value in any future work.'12

These were the thoughts of one who was imbued with the 1930s beliefs in the value of the education, in the most appropriate form, of every individual in producing what would now be called a public good, and in the importance of thriving rural communities, supported by society as a whole for its own good. On a personal and practical level, Alley also made a lasting impact: even half a century later the librarian in charge of the Christchurch office of the Country Library Service was struck by the number of people in the small North Canterbury town of Waiau who remembered the impression he had made there in the days of his apprenticeship.13

Alley's thesis was sent for assessment to Shelley's old mentor, J.J. Findlay, who was examiner in education for the University of New Zealand. Findlay reported: 'I regard Admit's work as distinguished in its field, original, well presented and achieving a very practical result. And as his papers are also of the best he deserves to be placed at the top of the list.'14 Having completed study for philosophy III as a prerequisite, Alley graduated MA with first-class honours in May 1932.

Another who graduated MA with first-class honours at the same time was Crawford Somerset, whose thesis, also entitled 'An Experiment in Rural Adult Education',15 dealt with work he had done in Oxford, North Canterbury, 'to find out what subjects could be taken in a typical rural community and how they could best be taught with a view to enhancing country life'. Somerset's teaching career had paralleled Gwen Alley's, except that after a crippling attack of ankylosing spondylitis (a rheumatic condition of the spine) he had had to fight his way back on to a career path. He and Gwen both taught in Oxford in the 1920s, and they married on 15 January 1930.

Later in the same year, on 11 December, Geoffrey Alley and Euphan Jamieson were married in the Church of the Epiphany, Gebbies Valley (parish of St Andrews, Little River).16 The ceremony was conducted by page 59the Reverend Douglas Hay, who was involved with Canterbury College, the WEA, and the Student Christian Movement, and the bride wore a persian blue satin dress with a cream lace collar and long sleeves trimmed with similar lace.17 After a break in Akaroa, the young couple took up residence in the Jung at Westcote, and on 22 December 1931 a daughter, Judith Margaret, was born. In about 1934 Geoff and Euphan moved to a house in Clyde Road, not far from Westcote. The influence of Westcote was very strong, and Judith, approaching her 60s, had clear memories of being taken round the farm by her grandfather, trundled in a wheelbarrow or sitting with him in a pony trap, and of sitting on his lap for stories. The house was always busy, in her memory, with food preparation, people, and family from near and far, everything there revolving around Nana, her grandmother.18

Alley still played rugby for the university club in 1930,19 but he was by then phasing himself out and taking up golf with enthusiasm. He did, however, write a 180-page account of the British rugby tour of New Zealand which took place that year, an unusually literate and somewhat quirky contribution to the literature of the game.20 In an historical introduction he suggested that New Zealand had won her peculiar greatness in rugby because of a coincidence, which was that her development as a country took place along with her adoption of a national game, which, he implied, made our players liable to experiment. In dealing with the 1905 tour of Britain he referred, of course, to 'the match with Wales, forever to appear in the official records as Wales 3, New Zealand 0, in spite of that try by Deans, [which] will always be remembered in New Zealand, but, we hope, with the best feeling possible for an honest mistake by the referee'.

In his general comments on the tour Alley wrote: 'What struck anybody with experience of the qualities of South African forward play was the gentler methods of the British packmen, that is generally speaking … Had there been more genuine forward play on the tour, we should have had another demonstration of the failings and excellencies of the two-three-two scrum, but as it was, the New Zealand scrum was consistently able to prove itself better than the three-two-three of the tourists.' And there is a paragraph on 'The Charm of Golf ': 'There is probably much more in golf than in Rugby, but there is so much in it that it may drain enthusiasm for less imaginative but more stern tasks such as keeping a pack of New Zealand forwards out of mischief.' For the record, New Zealand won three of the four tests on this tour, scoring 87 points to 40.21

Alley was introduced to the royal and ancient game of golf by his Scottish friend Donald Grant, and for several years devoted himself to it with the intensity required to place an Alley at the top of any endeavour. Stories are told of his taking out his clubs in spare moments to practice page 60chipping a ball over the top of his van, and when he was asked in a later time what he remembered of the Depression he replied, 'The library van and golf.'22 He formalised his golfing status on 17 March 1933 when he was accepted as a Russley member of the Hagley Golf Club, playing at the Russley course which had been laid out in 1928 to take the overflow from the popular Hagley course, and was still, until the end of 1934, under Hagley control. He achieved a handicap of four and in 1934 was the Russley senior champion. He then disappeared from the club's records.23

Rewi returned to New Zealand for a short trip in 1932 with his adopted Chinese son, Alan, and stayed at Westcote. Geoff was at that time a member of the New Zealand branch of the Institute of Pacific Relations, and the two of them prepared a proposal for a study of the Chinese in New Zealand, which they submitted to the institute's national council. The council turned it down because of lack of funds,24 but it surfaced in 1938 as an article in the China Journal, consisting of a brief account of the gold-rush immigrants and (it must be said) a fairly complacent report on the situation of Chinese in New Zealand in the 1930s.25

In 1934 the New Zealand Council for Educational Research was established with an initial grant from the Carnegie Corporation of $US70,000 for five years for a programme of research, plus $US3000 per annum for administration.26 Alley applied for its post of executive officer, supported by a testimonial from Dr James Hight, who, after commenting very favourably on his record as a student and a WEA tutor and on his character, said that 'he would, with his personality, outlook, training and experience, discharge the work of supervising and administering research and, if necessary, conducting some research himself to the satisfaction of the Council'.27 Those who have had experience of dealing with testimonials and referees' reports will recognise the slight warning underlying the warmth; the job went to C.E. Beeby, who had much stronger credentials, and Alley was able to continue preparing himself for his life's work.

While the car scheme was proceeding according to plan, Shelley's problems with the WEA, or the WEA's with him, did not go away so easily. In the introduction to his thesis Alley said: 'This scheme was to embody new features, new conceptions, and was to operate independently of any existing institution for adult education, so that it might discover for itself the best form of organisation in every community that was visited.' And again, he said that the director of the WEA sought to put into operation not an extension of the WEA, or an extension of the university college in which he held a position, but a scheme which considered first the rural community and the individual in the community. And again: 'The attitude of the W.E.A. is definitely a narrower one, seeing society from inside its own institution, and seeking to extend itself … It appears to the writer page 61that the local W.E.A. has not yet a grasp of educational and sociological principles.'28

Ian Carter, in quoting these passages, calls Alley 'Shelley's mouthpiece',29 which is a bit unfair, since Alley was not a party to the negotiations which led to the establishment of the car scheme, and probably was not fully aware of the passions that had been aroused. All the same, the fact that he wrote in this way is a pretty clear indication of the way in which Shelley was talking, not always to those who would be discreet enough not to pass his comments on. Shelley might well have been right in his view of how best to achieve success with the car scheme, but it was a fact that the WEA had been named by the Carnegie Corporation in such a way as to expect to be treated as, at least, a partner in it. And Shelley's attitude was not a good example to a young graduate.

It is not surprising, therefore, that ruffled feathers stayed ruffled, or that George Manning, the secretary of the WEA, had periodic attacks of apoplexy when the car scheme came up for discussion. In the course of a series of meetings of the tutorial class committee and the district council of the WEA early in 1930, Manning told the latter on 26 February30 that the tutorial class committee had not been consulted on the appointment, or on the use of the Carnegie fund. The registrar of Canterbury College had in fact informed the WEA of the appointment only a week earlier in a letter which was placed before the tutorial class committee early in March;31 three of the six members present at this meeting expressed regret that the committee had not been informed earlier, and Shelley made the less than ingratiating comment that he was responsible, in this matter, to the board of governors of Canterbury College and to the special board set up by the Carnegie Corporation, and not to the tutorial class committee.32 Feelings escalated until a meeting of the district council on 27 March asked that Shelley explain himself and agree to the money being controlled by the tutorial class committee, or else resign as director.33

Damage control then swung into action and at a meeting of the tutorial class committee on 11 April the chairman (Hight) 'explained that Professor Shelley had agreed to submit his proposals to the Tutorial Class Committee in the future re the Carnegie Scheme', and Alley's appointment was then confirmed.34 Manning had written a letter from the district council to the tutorial class committee conveying the council's resolution of 27 March, but the file copy is annotated, 'Withheld owing to Prof. Shelley agreeing to terms April 2nd 1930, G.M.'35

Things settled down to some extent after this, apart from a brief but intense tussle over the size of the letters 'WEA' on the side of the van.36 By the end of the year Shelley was making arrangements for a joint meeting of the tutorial class committee and the trustees of the Carnegie grant to page 62discuss how things were going and to plan for the future. At the joint meeting on 3 December 1930 compliments were flying. Hight 'expressed his pleasure at the clear way in which the Tutor had answered the questions and described the nature of this experiment in rural Adult Education', and Studholme said 'that the W.E.A. were fortunate in having the services of Mr. Alley for this experiment in Adult Education and for the supervision of Professor Shelley. He hoped that the scheme would be extended so that if successful it might be possible to introduce it into the other districts.'37 Alley ended his interim report for the year, presented at a meeting in November, by saying, 'In conclusion I wish to thank Professor Shelley for his guidance throughout the year, and also Mr Johnson … for his co-operation in my work',38 and from then on regular reports were presented to the tutorial class committee.

The papering over of the cracks could not, however, conceal the fact that the cracks indicated some structural failure. Carter reckons that Shelley was deeply hurt by the controversies and that after 1930 he lost interest in the WEA.39 There is no doubt that Manning was equally hurt; it was the people less directly concerned who became reconciled, and Alley would have benefited from being more closely associated with the calm and diplomatic Hight, in the latter's capacity as chairman of the tutorial class committee.

Government subsidies to the WEA, nationwide, were abolished in 1931 as a Depression measure. The association was bailed out by an emergency grant of $US10,000 from the Carnegie Corporation, but it had to operate for several years under severe financial difficulties. The Strong/Shelley project may have been insulated after an approach by Allen to G.W. Forbes, the prime minister,40 as well as by economies and an improvement in the dollar exchange rate,41 but it is more likely that the Carnegie Corporation helped out. There is no record of any difficulty over the payment of Alley's salary, whereas for a time Johnson was unsure from month to month whether he would be paid.42 Alley was not affected in this way, but when the government imposed a 10 per cent wage and salary cut across the public service as a Depression measure (the first of two such cuts) he wrote to the registrar to draw his attention to 'an apparent injustice', in that it had been applied to his whole salary of £400 per annum, part of which was intended to cover personal expenses, which he reckoned at £50 per annum; he was rewarded by having his salary set at £350 per annum, 'subject to statutory reductions', plus £50 for travelling expenses which were not so subject (a saving, to him, of £5 per annum).43

After receiving reports on the first year's work on the Canterbury and Otago projects, Keppel wrote to Allen saying that he was delighted with the progress that had been made in so short a time: 'They give every evidence page 63of being well planned and carefully executed.'44 This opinion was no doubt included in the briefing of the Carnegie Corporation's next emissary, who arrived in New Zealand towards the end of 1931 to follow up on the effects of Russell's visit and reports. This was Lotus D. Coffman, president of the University of Minnesota, who arrived on 1 November, stayed for two weeks, and dated his confidential report to the corporation 15 December (or, to be more precise, 'December 15, 1931').45

Coffman undertook what must have been a gruelling tour. In the fortnight at his disposal he covered much of the ground that Russell had in 1928, paying particular attention to the university colleges and their libraries, university extension, museums and art galleries, and special institutions like the Institute for the Blind. He even found time to form views on New Zealand's dental health (which admittedly was spectacularly poor at that time) and the Plunket Society. His report was clearly based to a large extent on ideas that had been discussed beforehand in New York, checked by reference to local opinion, and it contained flashes of shrewdness, though it did not have the feeling of authority that Russell's report had. Its weaknesses were highlighted by an introduction of mindboggling naïveté in which, in full foreign-expert mode, he filled the corporation in on New Zealand conditions, remarking on the socialistic tendencies of the government (in 1931!), noting that 'there are still a few Maoris living', and expressing admiration for the majestic beauty of the 'South Andes'.

The most immediately effective parts of Coffman's report concerned the need for an educational research institute, and what he called 'the Strong–Shelley project', together with the latter's connection with the WEA.46 In the former case, his comments led to Carnegie funding for the establishment of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. What we now focus on are the Strong–Shelley project and the WEA.

Coffman was less impressed by the WEA than Russell had been. He observed that it limited its offerings almost entirely to the liberal studies, that it had no interest in vocational branches, and that the term 'workers' in its name was anathema to many farmers. 'There is no disposition, however,' he said, 'on the part of the leaders in the Workers' Education Association to change the name or to extend the offerings. They are satisfied with what they have done and with what they are doing. It appears to me that they were entirely too much satisfied.' One wonders how he could have formed such a definite conclusion in so short a time. Nevertheless, he recommended additional funding while a survey of the situation regarding the WEA and kindred organisations like the Women's Institute was undertaken.47

'The Strong–Shelley project,' Coffman wrote, 'is succeeding admirably. Dean A.G. Strong and Professor Shelley are able leaders. They are not page 64impractical dreamers but know how to make things come to pass. Everywhere, and I made many inquiries, I found their work spoken of in warmest terms of praise…. If it could be extended over the Island for three to five years the whole program would stand a better chance of receiving federal encouragement and support at the end of the experimental work.'48

Coffman, naturally, met the Carnegie advisory committee headed by Sir James Allen, and he would have been influenced by its views on the administrative problems that had been encountered in Canterbury. He noted that Otago and Canterbury were willing and ready to co-operate in the preparation of a plan, for an extended period, which would ensure wider coverage of both sections of the project (which had not happened after 1929, although it was supposed to), and he recommended that the new plan be administered by a committee which would be an enhanced version of the existing advisory committee. Noticeably absent from his recommendation was any reference to the WEA.

Keppel wrote to Allen over a year later, on 14 March 1933, to ask for a plan along the lines suggested by Coffman. Allen consulted Studholme, Francis, Strong and Shelley, and in August sent a request for a new fiveyear grant, on the following terms: (a) that the present trustees, together with Strong, and Shelley, be an advisory committee to recommend to the corporation how any money grants should be allocated between the two university colleges and the work to be undertaken; (b) that if any additional grant was made, power to handle it should be placed in the hands of the committee; and (c) that all appointments to staff should be made by the university college council concerned on the recommendation of the committee.49

Keppel wrote to Allen on 20 April 1934, endorsing the plan that had been set out in Allen's letter and announcing that the Carnegie board of trustees had appropriated the sum of $US52,000 'in support of the travelling library and home science project in New Zealand being conducted in connection with Canterbury College and Otago University under a joint agreement with the Government and the institutions involved'. Payments were to be made on a declining scale, from $17,500 in 1934–35 (including $2500 for the purchase of two extra motor cars) to $5000 in 1938–39. 'It is our hope,' he said, 'that the New Zealand Government will find it possible, as conditions improve, to carry out their original agreement in this respect. The Corporation does not look forward to a renewal of this grant.' He also made it clear that the corporation expected earlier promises of co-operation between the two sections of the project to be fulfilled.50

Allen informed the two colleges of the renewed grant and the terms on which it had been made,51 and Norton Francis, as secretary of the advisory page 65committee, later told Strong and Shelley that the advisory committee considered it necessary to have a common designation, preferably to be called an Association, and asked them to confer over the appointment of an organiser.52 Thus was born the Association for Country Education which would take the project into 1935 and beyond.

All of this had been done without any consultation with the WEA. Manning was naturally outraged. When he asked the registrar of Canterbury College for details of the new scheme, he was for a while given the runaround between the registrar and the secretary of the advisory committee, but he was finally given access to the college files and summarised them for a meeting of his executive committee on 5 March 1935. 'It appears to me,' he wrote in an accompanying comment,

that the organisation of this new scheme has been going on since August 23rd, 1933. In order that the Carnegie Advisory Committee should be able to perform its new function of controlling the scheme it was advisable to secure some persons with educational qualifications on the Committee and, if possible, someone in touch with Adult Education, therefore Dr. Hight was suggested and a member from Otago University … The correspondence indicates that the Carnegie Advisory Committee is the final authority for the new scheme, and that all appointments, methods of work, new activities, must be also submitted to it before being put into operation. All reports must be submitted to it…. Prof. Strong and Prof. Shelley are both appointed advisors which may be an indication that they have been advising all along…. In all this development the W.E.A., or the Tutorial Class Committee which directs the Adult Education Movement in this Province were not consulted, asked for advice or for their co-operation.

The Carnegie advisory committee had been rather naïvely hoping that the WEA would co-operate in the new scheme, but at this meeting the Executive Committee of the WEA resolved: 'That the Executive disassociate itself from any scheme which has been drawn up by an outside body and we demand that the designation of the letters W.E.A. be removed from any such scheme.'53

This whole episode leaves an unfortunate impression, regardless of the advantages or disadvantages of the two ways of handling the Carnegie project. George Manning, the secretary of the Canterbury WEA, was a well-respected citizen who was later a popular mayor of Christchurch; he should have been treated with more respect. Shelley, whose hand can be seen in the sequence of events, might have been an inspirational leader of those who did his will, but he was obviously seriously deficient in basic page 66understanding of administrative principles. As for Hight, it is surprising that he went along with the scheming over the scheme.

As far as one can tell, Alley was not involved in these shenanigans. He was out in the field, doing the work that Shelley had made it possible for him to do, and his later memories of Shelley were positive. 'It's Shelley as a sower of seeds that we must remember,' he said, looking back in old age; 'I don't think that he knew very much about the so-called mechanics of library service. I'm sure he didn't…. But Shelley's view about books and the idea of meaning through communication all helped him in the ideas that came to the surface when the scheme in Canterbury began.'54

Alley's increasing focus on the library side of his work has already been seen. As early as in his report for 1932 he noted that all three of his methods, the issue of good books of all kinds, the introduction of the WEA box scheme to groups, and the holding of fortnightly meetings in centres visited by the tutor, had given good results, but that the library work was the most satisfying.55 Alley was still working in a system that was apart from the institutional library field, but the logic of events was carrying him towards it.