Getting knowledge to the people, Hilary Stace

Geoffrey Alley, Librarian: His Life and Work
W J McEldowney
Victoria University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0864735340

New Zealanders of all ages can relate to the transformative experience of accessing free library services. The National Library, after a few wobbles in the 1990s, now has a new Act of Parliament ensuring independence and library leadership. But the funding and security of these services have only been achieved because many people worked hard for decades to make this happen. As this book reveals, Geoffrey Alley, first National Librarian in 1964 and subject of this detailed biography, was a major player.

The development of our library services in New Zealand also owes a huge debt to a 19th century Scottish philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie believed in the civilising influence of libraries and education, so put his considerable profits from the US steel industry into supporting library and educational infrastructure in countries around the world. From the late 1800s Carnegie funded the building of 18 architecturally-distinct public libraries around New Zealand; for their part, local bodies were supposed to provide free services to the citizens. By the 1920s the Carnegie Corporation offered scholarships to US or UK library schools to local library leaders who would then develop services in their own countries. Over the following decades many New Zealanders won Carnegie scholarships.

In 1934 the Carnegie Corporation sponsored a stocktake of our library services. The resulting Munn-Barr report contained significant recommendations, including removing subscriptions and improving the abysmal library access in rural areas. Geoffrey Alley’s rural library work in Canterbury and Taranaki impressed Carnegie scholarship recipient Alister McIntosh of the Prime Minister’s Department and Minister of Education Peter Fraser, and in 1937 Alley was appointed head of the newly established Country Library Service (CLS).

Born in 1903, Geoffrey was the fifth of seven remarkable children of Clara and Frederick Alley. Clara was a first-wave feminist and one of the 1896 founders of the National Council of Women. Frederick, a school principal, was a passionate believer in the power of education although his methods, including liberal corporal punishment, seem somewhat tyrannical these days. Geoffrey’s siblings included Rewi (known for his work in China), Gwen Somerset (an early childhood educator and playcentre activist) and Joy (a nurse educator).

After finishing at Christchurch Boys’ High (where he was a peer of C E Beeby), Geoff was sent by his father to manage the family farm in Southland. There he played provincial rugby and was selected as All Black lock, touring South Africa in 1928. A life-long sports-lover, he was uncomfortable with later references to his All Black career but attended All Black reunions and in 1960 joined the New Zealand Citizens’ All Black Tour Association with its “No Maoris, No Tour” policy.

Geoffrey entered Canterbury College in 1926 and studied under James Shelley, an innovative professor of education and Carnegie scholar. He later worked under Shelley’s direction as a Carnegie-funded WEA rural tutor, taking books to the people in his van, and writing the experience up for his MA thesis. The progression to head of the CLS in Wellington followed. The CLS expanded and with the addition of a library school and other divisions evolved into the National Library Service with Alley as director.

Alley also had a long involvement with the New Zealand Library Association. Although a powerful lobby through these decades, it contained internal tensions such as those between academic and regional librarians. At one point the author refers to two personalities fighting like elephant seals in a territorial dispute. Key to progress were alliances between librarians, politicians and influential public servants; Peter Fraser, Dorothy Neal White, Tom Shand, Graham Bagnall and McIntosh are a few of the players in the story, culminating in the National Library Act of 1966 with Alley in charge. Parallel were battles for funding, remuneration and recognition in a profession with a predominantly female workforce (many at high levels).

Alley retired in 1967 to his large garden in Upper Hutt, and died in 1986. He continued occasional lecturing in New Zealand and overseas. McEldowney concludes that Alley’s strength was not as an ideas man but in the ability to turn the visions of others into reality.

But even though this major biographical work is well-written, detailed and thoroughly researched I found it somehow unsatisfying. The subtitle is misleading. Alley’s professional work dominates, with his non-professional “life” merely a secondary theme. For me, there is not nearly enough attention given to Geoffrey the child of one extraordinary family and father of another. There is surely no lack of material. Geoffrey and two siblings have entries in the Dictionary of National Biography, and both Rewi and Gwen wrote autobiographies.

With their authoritarian father (called a monster by one daughter), an apparently saintly mother, and several strong-minded siblings, Geoffrey’s family relationships warrant more depth than is presented here. The author hints that Geoffrey also became a controlling husband and father. For example, after he moved the family from Roseneath to Upper Hutt – apparently without consulting his wife Euphan – he spent long hours in the garden, and the children had to wait for him to finish before they had dinner. His 1960 car accident, while driving children from sport and necessitating several months in hospital, must have been a major frustration for an active man. Although widely respected, he seemed to have few close friends apart from his mentor McIntosh, who had a property nearby.

But the author seems uncomfortable writing about domestic life, so after a few tantalising pages it is back to the intrigues of the next library meeting. Alley must have been difficult to work with but even harder to live with. Although one needs to consider the sensitivity of descendants, I would have liked more balance between the nine-to-five Geoffrey and the man who filled the other 16 hours. Perhaps a full Alley extended family history is warranted, such as Frances Porter achieved for the Richmond-Atkinsons.

I also found it strange that the author used the third person to put himself in the story. Biographers need to place their subjects in their historic, cultural and economic contexts, as McEldowney has done. But the author’s motivation, relationship to the subject and role in the story is also significant, as biography writing is not an objective process, and the definitive biography an oxymoron. The biographer selects the pieces to create the mosaic, which contexts and events to highlight, sources to quote and which to ignore. Motivation for writing this biography is given by McEldowney in his introduction. He quotes from his tribute to Alley at the time of the latter’s death in 1986 as “arguably the greatest librarian that New Zealand has yet produced”. However, as his research progressed he realised the Alley story was more complex.

McEldowney himself played a major part in the New Zealand library world and the New Zealand Library Association for many decades. He and Alley had a long professional and personal relationship, hinted at, for example, in a 1985 letter Alley wrote to McEldowney complaining about his arthritis. From my perspective as a reader from a different gender and generation to the writer, I would have preferred a more lively story with “I, the biographer” as an active, expert player. There is a story within this story struggling to get out, and it is of the author’s relationship with his subject.

Despite these niggles, this is an essential reference book for students of librarianship or public policy. Rather than a biography of Alley, it could be more accurately called a biography of a national library. Here is the thoroughly documented story of the development of our library services eventually centralised as the National Library, underpinned by the evolving profession of librarianship and a strong ethic of service and valuing of knowledge. It is the story of alliances between the librarians, policy people and politicians, between US philanthropy and local enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, the attractive cover design does not follow into the book’s interior. While the font is reasonable for ageing eyes, the pages are too densely packed with text and the thick paper makes for a heavy volume. The great photos which could have broken up the text are instead bunched together and run into the tight gutter. On the positive side, it has an index by award-winner Tordis Flath, is well referenced, and printed locally which is good for the economy and climate, saving book miles.

I hope our library services are now so firmly established that their survival won’t again depend on overseas philanthropy. However, there are recent threats to the Carnegie ideal of libraries as part of civil society, such as the disposal of National Library collections in the 1990s, and the recent closure of Wellington City Council’s mobile library. The internet could be seen as another threat but, rather than signalling the end of libraries, its rise provides new opportunities for library professionals to audit and maintain the integrity of knowledge through such collaborations as the New Zealand Digital Strategy. Alley’s strong belief in getting knowledge to the people wherever they live remains strong.


Hilary Stace is a Wellington reviewer, an historian and former librarian. 


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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