Cataloguing the past, Hilary Stace

Te Rau Herenga: A Century of Library Life in New Zealand: The New Zealand Library Association and LIANZA 1910-2010
Julia Millen
Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473175795


Librarians have long endured negative stereotypes, but in reality they are as diverse and interesting as any other group. This centennial history of the New Zealand librarians’ professional association includes stories of librarians being smart, generous, naïve, dedicated, altruistic and stroppy. The popularity of the new group Feminist Librarians at the 1981 library association conference in Christchurch threatened many of the old guard, but forced leaders of the library profession to address significant gender issues. Many librarians preferred to join the new movement rather than the decades-old, male-dominated association which refused to endorse the Working Women’s Charter.

Ironically, it was Mary Ronnie, the first woman to hold the role of national librarian, and one of a handful of women to attain senior library jobs, who met the group to ask how the New Zealand Library Association could better meet their needs. There is no record of the minutes of that meeting in this book but issues raised were probably those the group publicised ‒ and featured in the feminist magazine Broadsheet ‒ such as lack of professional status, child care and even lack of feminist literature choices by those doing book selection.

Pay equity was a growing issue, with a Wellington study revealing that qualified female librarians working for the city council were paid less than male council labourers. A 1984 Massey University report showed that although 82 per cent of librarians were women, men rose through the ranks more quickly and at a younger age. Entrenchment of gender roles is illustrated by the election of the only male in the 1954 library school diploma class as its representative. The snippet about feminist librarians is mentioned on p90 of Julia Millen’s Te Rau Herenga, as part of a short chapter on women in library work; unfortunately, it is not easy to find via the index.

Librarians in New Zealand have a proud history of citizenship advocacy and lobbying. In 1910, 15 representatives from public libraries met in Dunedin and formed the Libraries’ Association of New Zealand. Dunedin Public Library was then newly built with philanthropic support from US businessman Andrew Carnegie (its centennial history was the subject of a recent elegant history by long-time librarian Mary Ronnie). The group later became the New Zealand Library Association and, although this remains its statutory name, it is now legally LIANZA Inc: Library & Information Association New Zealand Aotearoa: Te Rau Herenga o Aotearoa, with a membership of several hundred across New Zealand.

The century has seen huge changes in addition to feminist awareness: a journal and newsletters, the development of professional training at tertiary level, the growth of national library services, the establishment of a national library and a national librarian, and increased bicultural awareness. The association has been there all the way: seeking better training, better accommodation, resourcing and recognition of the profession. Most of the century has been dominated by some major personalities, such as the first National Librarian Geoff Alley who died in 1986. His long-time colleague Jock McEldowney wrote Alley’s biography, as well as accounts of the association’s first 60 years (in two publications). Millen’s short publication draws on the earlier histories, as well as bringing the story into the new millennium.

Many librarians over many decades have given huge amounts of voluntary time and effort to running their association and its committees. They have also been prepared to stand up for causes, such as their demonstrations against the lack of progress on the “hole in the ground” in Molesworth Street, which took over a decade in the 1970s and 80s to become the long planned National Library building. I would have liked more about the context for this story, such as the dispute between the boilermakers’ union and the Muldoon government. Other causes included ongoing battles for free libraries, exemplified by the free versus rental book argument. Intriguing snippets hint at bigger stories, such as why City Librarian Maurice Gee and the Napier City Council fell out after only a short tenure. The book also relates the occasional scandal or mismanagement – property deals gone bad and embezzlement, followed by renewed efforts to get the organisation back on track.

The history itself is mainly arranged chronologically with some thematic chapters on, for instance, women, biculturalism, conferences and school libraries. Topics such as library education include the passage from the first 1940s library school classes to the university and distance-based qualifications of today. The book finishes before the most recent upheavals of the National Library’s current renovation project, the integration of the National Library (and Archives New Zealand) into the Department of Internal Affairs, and the effect of Auckland supercity’s integration of all its libraries into one vast collection. The author, a former librarian, has relied on association records, newsletters and related publications, supplemented by personal communications and knowledge.

Unfortunately, this book has been severely let down by its production. Many years ago when I was at library school we studied a topic called “the book”, whereby enthusiastic tutors extolled the book and its production almost as an art form. There is something multi-dimensional, tactile and sensory about a good book. Many aspects – choice of typeface, layout, paper and photographic reproduction – are not significantly money dependent, and librarians are understandably quite picky about thorough checking for typos and consistency. But for some reason (perhaps time), many details have been overlooked.

For a start, I am unsure of the title of this book. The one cited at the top of this review is from the title page, but conflicts with the cover and spine titles. Secondly, I would expect macrons (or double vowels) to be used in any work featuring increased bicultural awareness. Thirdly, many photo captions appear not to have been proofread, such as the one on p182, which not only doesn’t make sense but has a significant typo. In the list of milestones 1910-2010, A G Bagnall is listed as dying in both 1973 as well as the correct 1986. Mistakes include the wrong date for the Turnbull Library shift from Turnbull House (it was 1972 not 1971). Inconsistencies in personal references read as if copied from minutes, so Bert Roth is sometimes H O Roth and occasionally Bert, and Geoff Alley is either Geoff, Geoffrey or G T Alley. As well as the harsh white paper, the layout annoyed me with its irregular paragraph breaks and poorly sized lines. I know from my own experience of publishing on a limited budget that even poor quality original photographs can be made to look better than many here.

The impression this book gives is that it was commissioned by a committee short of money and time, although the author has done a good job within these constraints. Librarians may be disappointed, but perhaps it is an appropriate reflection of the association ‒ busy people with good intentions trying to do much with too little time. The total production needed more attention from careful librarians.


Hilary Stace is a Wellington reviewer. 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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