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Geoffrey Alley, Librarian: His Life & Work


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When Geoffrey Alley died in September 1986, he was remembered as the man who, for a generation of librarians in New Zealand, had been the embodiment of their profession. He was also seen as the creator of the National Library of New Zealand which had come into being twenty years earlier, in 1966. Reading, in 2006, the tribute that I wrote after he died, I am struck by the somewhat one-dimensional way in which I focused on his leadership during his active years. This is what I wrote in my first paragraph:

[He was] arguably the greatest librarian that New Zealand has yet produced, and the greatest servant that our library profession and the New Zealand Library Association have had …. his stature, at a time when one person could influence, and in fact determine, the direction of events in many important ways was so overwhelming that it is unlikely to be matched again. There was a small band of very able, very enthusiastic, and very determined people who created the library system of New Zealand as we know it now, and he was without question its leader. He was the one who made it happen.1

That, and the rest of the tribute, were not too bad in the light of the ephemeral occasion in which they were presented. But then, a couple of years later, I decided to write what, at first, was to be a biography of Alley, but which turned, of necessity, into a study of his life, his times, his work, and the environment in which he operated, and that was a different ball-game altogether. Seventeen years later, it has been closed off, a more interesting story, I think, because of all the other people whose roles have been discovered, the interplay between them, and the forces which determined how they worked together.

Jock Phillips, in a review of two biographies which was published in New Zealand Books in 1999, 2 wrote, 'Biographies bring the past to life in an accessible way. The rise and fall of individuals, their childhood page 12struggles and their adult successes, provide an engaging structure. But their weakness is that by their very nature they foreground the role and influence of individuals, and they underplay the impact on our development of larger forces such as economics, military power, social structures, family systems, international communications….' To understand Alley and his achievement, many factors like these do need to be taken into account. He did not live or work in a vacuum. There were larger forces which provided the stage on which he performed; there were scripts already written which he could develop and interpret; there were other players with whom he reacted and who reacted to him; there was his own personality which determined how he played his part. Above all, there was what may be called the Spirit of the Times, which no one was conscious of at the time but which we can now see was what made New Zealand society what it was.

No society is without problems which need to be tackled. New Zealand certainly had them in the 1930s, but it was essentially a cohesive society whose members cared for and respected each other, and it had people who were capable of working together to find solutions to their problems and work out how to begin to handle them. Peter Fraser's famous educational objective, 'that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers', was typical of the best of New Zealand in his time, and it was very relevant to the New Zealand library community, which had embarked on what was to be a thirty-year programme in which the library system was to be transformed.

Alley was not involved in the earliest stages of the process of library reform, which had been begun by a small number of librarians with the crucial support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but at a critical stage, when the improvement of rural library service was being considered, he was recruited by Alister McIntosh and Don Hall, who persuaded Fraser that the way ahead was a stand-alone Country Library Service with Alley at its head. Neither McIntosh nor Hall was at that time working as a librarian, but their action was one of the most important in New Zealand library history, not just for the establishment of the Country Library Service, but also for all that flowed from it. And in Alley they had found a person who could become a leader of the 'very able, very enthusiastic, and very determined people', referred to above.

Alley's story is therefore very largely the story of the development of the New Zealand library system from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, but the way in which it unfolds depends on his background as a member of a notable family which was deeply concerned about education, as one with farming and sporting experience and with a respect for those people page 13who lived close to the land and had an enduring respect for it, and as a remarkable character himself, with his own strengths and weaknesses. But in addition, the names of John Barr, Archie Dunningham, John Harris, Clifford Collins, Dorothy White, Harold Miller, and Stuart Perry, as well as politicians like Preter Fraser and Tom Shand, are as important as those of Alley, McIntosh, and Hall, and an appreciation of their characters and their contributions, as well as the role of the New Zealand Library Association, is also necessary to complete the picture.

Decades later, many of the problems are different, and the ways of handling them must naturally take account of different circumstances, but the ideal of working together co-operatively for the good of society as a whole, which was basic in the Alley era, will never be inappropriate. The aberration of the period in which massive inefficiencies resulted from a competitive model, imposed for ideological reasons by people who knew everything about Management except what it was for, will pass and be consigned to history, but as the library world recovers from its effects an account of Alley's time and the example of how he and his fellows thought and worked will have lessons for the future.

So, this is a biography up to a point but not a straight biography, a history but a history from a particular angle, an administrative study but not a theoretical one. It is a bit of a hybrid, but in the circumstances perhaps more interesting than a pure-bred. It has taken a good deal of research and a lot more thought. If it throws useful light on a corner of the past, that will make the effort worth while.

In writing this work I have been immensely grateful for the help I have had from many people and institutions. To begin with, I must acknowledge with gratitude the support I have had from members of Alley's family. Judith (Tait), Roderic, and Patrick have provided much information, suggestions, and ideas, and Ruth, living in London, has allowed me to quote from her book, Carrie Hepple's Garden. In places I have been fairly critical of their father's actions, but never once has any of them suggested that I should tone my comments down. I was able to interview Alley's sister Gwen Somerset shortly before she died, and his other sisters Kathleen Wright and Joy Alley were generous of their time in discussions and correspondence. Euphan Alley's sister, Marion Tetley, gave me insights from another perspective.

Another group of people has patiently read and commented on each part of the work as I have produced it, and at many times the comments they have made have enabled me to improve what they have read. I am truly grateful to them. They have included (and unfortunately I have to note that several have died before they could see the end result) Malvina Jones (M. Overy when she worked in the CLS), Jean H. Norrie, William L Renwick. Mary A. Ronnie, John P. Sage, Wilfred L. Saunders, Alan E. page 14Smith, Helen B. Sullivan (Helen Cowey in her CLS days), and Jean S. Wright. Mary Ronnie, who has written and published in the same field as mine, most generously passed on to me some of her own research notes.

A most important addition to this list is my old friend and colleague Rosemary Hudson, with whom I have had constant discussions of the material I have collected, the interpretation of it and of comments made by others, and of my development and presentation of the story. As a sounding board par excellence, with a deep understanding of the professional principles involved, she has been indispensable, and she has also, in the later stages, done sterling work in checking the manuscript, in making sure that the bibliography stands up scrutiny, and in checking and verifying all the notes.

Among others who have helped in many ways have been Jean S. Adelman, Dorothy Ballantyne (formerly White, and before that Neal), C.E. Beeby, D.H. Borchardt, Harrison Bryan (who commented on my account of the 1958 Canberra seminar), J.T. Burrows, Margaret Campbell, Ian Carter (biographer of Shelley), Archie Dunningham, Norman Horrocks, J.K. Hunn, Margaret Lovell-Smith, Rachel McAlpine, Brian McKeon (who put me on to Stuart Perry's three bound volumes of documents relating to the National Library campaign), Allan Mercer, Brian O'Neill, Patricia Perry, Paul Richardson, John Roberts, A.G. Rodda, Adrienne Rodgers of Lumsden (who in 1991 introduced me to Bill Wicks, the current owner of Frederick Alley's farm, and to some older inhabitants who remembered the Alley boys), Peter Scott, Paul Shelley, Jean Whyte (who wrote marvellous reminiscences for me and sent me letters she had received from Alley), Elma Wright, and Ruth Wylie.

The staffs of a number of libraries and other organisations have been very helpful (as they normally are) in providing access to documentary information. First, of course, the National Library and the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the University of Otago Library (including, especially, the Hocken Library). In the University of Canterbury, Library records consulted were supplemented by Registry records and those of the Canterbury WEA which originated in the involvement of Canterbury College, the latter being supplemented by the Christchurch WEA Centre records. Good information was also found in the Auckland Public Library, the Library of Victoria University, and the Wellington and Dunedin Public Libraries. I was also able to consult files of the Friends of the Turnbull Library for the period from 1963 to 1974.

Material on various topics was found in the National Archives (which I understand has been re-named), and I am grateful to the State Services Commission for agreeing that I should be allowed to check Alley's personal file before it emerged from embargo on his 100th birthday on 4 February page 152003. The Ministry of Defence provided very full information on Eric's and Rewi's military careers, and other material was found in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (A.D. McIntosh files), the Canterbury Education Board, the Canterbury Museum, Columbia University Libraries (Carnegie Corporation papers), and the Library of the State University of Florida, Tallahassee (Alley / Metcalf correspondence). It was a pleasant experience to deal with all the staff members involved.

The Trustees of the National Library in 1989 made me a grant of $1,500 to prepare a full project proposal, but then they lost interest. This was a pity, but it meant that from then on the work was done without my feeling any financial obligation to anyone. However, ten years later, when the work was well advanced, the Trustees of the G.T. Alley Fellowship Trust, set up by the National Library Society (i.e. the 'Friends' organisation associated with the National Library) decided that its next major project should be to facilitate the publication of my work. It arranged programmes for me to visit Wellington in 1999 and 2004 to meet interested parties and to speak at various gatherings, and it actively collected donations to enable it to provide a publishing subsidy. During this period the new National Librarian, Penny Carnaby, also took a great interest in the project, and funds provided by both the Trust and the National Library have been important in ensuring that the work, which one has to admit had become quite large, was published. Their support has come at exactly the right time, and it is very gratefully acknowledged. Alan Smith, on behalf of the Trust, has been untiring in helping the project in many ways, especially during the last months as the publication date loomed.

Finally, it is a pleasure to acknowledge the sympathetic work of Fergus Barrowman, Sue Brown, and Heather McKenzie, of Victoria University Press, of Rachel Barrowman, who did the preliminary editing, and of the indexer, Tordis Flath. It is a bonus to be able to work with people who appreciate what one is trying to do.

W.J. McEldowney

9 September 2006
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