Civilisation safe, Hilary Stace

Parliament’s Library: 150 Years 
John E Martin
Steele Roberts, $59.99,
ISBN 9781877448430

Freedom to Read: A Centennial History of Dunedin Public Library 
Mary Ronnie
Dunedin Public Libraries and the Dunedin Public Library Association $40.00,
ISBN 9780473134624

In these uncertain times the publication in 2008 of these handsome books presenting the histories of two of our most significant libraries provides reassurance that civilisation is safe. Both reflect high standards of research, writing and publishing, with clear text and layout, a variety of well-chosen illustrations on good quality paper, and detailed referencing and indexes. That both are soft-covered rather than hard-bound are the only apparent gestures towards frugality.

A recent thread on a popular New Zealand blogsite questioned whether history is better written by historians or journalists. I would extend this discussion to whether library history is better written by historians or librarians, as these books are authored by one of each.

The current elegant parliamentary library building in Wellington was opened in 1901 and renovated in the 1990s. This 150th anniversary of the library service has been written by the parliamentary historian who also produced the 150th anniversary history of our parliamentary democracy in 2004, and he notes the close connection between that beginning and the establishment of information provision for members. For many decades until the creation of the National Library in 1966 the General Assembly Library also served as a national library, and until more recently also as a copyright deposit repository. So it has played a significant role in our nation’s identity and memory as well as being central to our democracy. On another level it is a place of many stories, and the book records fascinating detail of processes, practices and staff. Several chief librarians and significant politicians are featured. John Martin has discovered some wonderful photographs, and the 1967 line-up of the alpha males of the library world drinking tea soon after the National Library merger is a classic.

As a former librarian there (briefly in the 1970s), I found the photographs of the artefacts, the old card indexes, the dignified reading rooms, the dark newspaper basement, and the work areas with their book-lined mezzanines particularly evocative. One picture features my former statistician colleague who had the library’s first computer, and whose desk was squeezed into the corridor by the photocopier. Apart from some technology, and the gender balance, not much had changed since my mother worked at the library for Guy Scholefield in the 1930s.

In my time when the House went into urgency, the rostered library staff had their pay reduced to quarter pay (not time and a quarter) after midnight, an injustice we took up with Parliament’s powerful Library Committee. There were compensations, such as the cupboard under the stairs with an extensive collection of New Zealand fiction, and I devoured Jean Devanney’s long-out-of-print novels. Many MPs found refuge in the library. New MP David Lange came in at night to collect a pile of new books which he read and returned the next day.

One of many links between this book and Mary Ronnie’s history of the Dunedin Public Library is provided by Ethel McMillan. The long-time Member of Parliament for Dunedin North was both a member of the parliamentary Library Committee and a champion of the Dunedin Public Library. She was active in the politics of the New Zealand Library Association as were many of the actors in both books. Mary Ronnie herself had jurisdiction over the General Assembly Library in her term as National Librarian.

But while Parliament has an elite library for the exclusive use of parliamentarians and staff, it is free public access that remains central to the Dunedin Public Library’s existence. Unlike other local authorities, Dunedin still proudly calls its library “public”. And who better to compile this history than passionate library advocate Mary Ronnie with over six decades of library insider experience, much of it at Dunedin Public Library where she started work at 15?

The citizens of Dunedin attempted for many years to set up a public library. But it became a reality because of that great library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who not only paid for the bricks and mortar for libraries around the world, including New Zealand, but insisted on free services. The cover features a 1906 watercolour of the planned new Carnegie library in Moray Place. Other significant benefactors over the years included the local McNab and Reed families. Among the varied illustrations are a series of staff photos over the decades (some of the same faces throughout) reflecting the changing fashions of warm clothing.

Almost as a warning, Ronnie notes that she could write this history because past annual library reports to council were full, and most of the historic record was paper-based. Neither will be the case for future historians. Although she also notes that the thought transference interloans that previous generations of librarians wished for are not such a strange idea in this internet era.

One theme of both books is gender. Both libraries were set up by men, for men, yet are now staffed primarily by women. The first woman at the Parliamentary Library was Quinice Cowles who joined in 1926 as cataloguer and typist, and gradually rose through the ranks. As is common with library staff, she stayed for many years. Children’s librarian at Dunedin Public, Dorothy Neal hid her marriage to Dick White until WWII necessitated changed attitudes to women and work. Previously women had been expected to resign on marriage. Ronnie notes that the predominance of women could be a reason for the traditionally low librarian pay rates.

So is library history better written by historians or librarians? Martin’s history of the Parliamentary Library is a robust production from an expert on our Parliamentary history. Ronnie’s history has that insider knowledge and passion, and a commitment to the philosophy of providing free library service to the citizens of Dunedin. Both authors have had access to a huge amount of historic material, resources and stories from people involved now and in the past, and there is enough in both books to occupy any reader interested in history or politics. Read and enjoy both, and make your own decision.


Hilary Stace is a Wellington reviewer.

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