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Jean Primrose Whyte




far and away the best librarian in Australia1

Jean Whyte’s life would fit neatly into periods each between thirteen and nineteen years if it were not for her two-year stint at the NLA. The reason for this anomaly, said Jean, was that there was an ‘unfortunate change in librarians’2 … Alan Fleming, Director General of the NLA, was succeeded by George Chandler.

Fleming, a friend of Jean’s, was not a librarian, so there was an uproar when he was appointed, but Jean defended him. Fleming, a senior public servant, became popular with the staff at the NLA. He had been head of the Joint Intelligence Organization and brought to the position a wide knowledge of the public service and a range of useful contacts. When he heard of Jean’s application for the NLA position he was so amazed by his good fortune that he checked with Harrison Bryan to find out whether the application was genuine.3 Like Osborn before him, Fleming was keen to have Jean work with him and anxious to make the rough places plain, to the extent that he ensured a welcome for Baggins: ‘I am nevertheless wondering whether you’d like a furlined basket or a plush lined filing cabinet drawer for Baggins (& directions as to whether he should be filed under CAT or PERSON)’.4

Baggins and Miss Jean Whyte arrived at the NLA in September 1972. Jean’s new position, Branch Director, one level below that of the Director General, was classed in the Second Division of the Commonwealth Public Service, in which there were 850 men and one woman (there were no women in the first division). Jean said that ‘not being familiar with the Commonwealth public service … the second division classification had not meant a darn thing to her until she read the PSB [Public Service Board] report and realized how small the division was’.5

The NLA, set up in 1901, had been housed first in Melbourne (where it was known as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library) taking over the Victorian Parliamentary Library building, before moving to Canberra in 1927 (Andrew Osborn, who then worked in the Library, had assisted with the move). The Library occupied various locations around Canberra until, in 1968, it was moved into its current building on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Jean described the new building in her ALJ article ‘The National Library’ shortly after it opened.6

By the time Jean arrived the Library held more than 1,250,000 volumes (fewer than the University of Sydney), subscribed to 54,000 serial titles and held many special collections. The collection was increasing rapidly and new technology was extending the way materials and services were made available locally, nationally and internationally – this was the time of the ‘information explosion’, ‘the days of the STISEC Report, the Tell Seminar, the amendment of the National Library Act which enlarged the Library’s ambit … a central role for the Library … the time of ALAIN, the projected Australian Library Assisted Information Network, the first vision of effective coordination of the national bibliographic and information service resource’.7 It was a time of acronyms: ‘the language of a world increasingly organized in formal groups for exchange of ideas and co-operative action; a world of fast travel and communications; a world continually expanding its powers of handling information through computers’.8

The Library had recently been reorganized into three branches; Jean became Director of one of these, the Information, Reference and Research Branch, which had 120 staff and was itself divided into Reference, Australiana and the special collections, the last of which Jean especially enjoyed9 – the National Film Collection, the National Photographic Collection and the newly formed National Collection of Sound Recordings.10 The Branch also arranged the restoration and permanent display of Captain Cook’s journal and the purchase of expensive materials such as Parrots of the World, which cost $50,000 for the full set, more than the cost of the average Australian suburban house at the time.11 Jean enjoyed developing the National Collection, which involved requesting and receiving donations, much of it from public figures in Australia such as authors, politicians and academics, and she was especially interested in acquiring manuscripts and personal papers.12 Jean, again, led a department involved in rapid, ground-breaking change.

Although there was excitement in the challenge of the NLA’s work, in comparison with the University of Sydney there was an ‘astonishing quiet’13 – contrast the problem of thousands of overdue loans in Sydney with Jean’s attempt at the NLA to retrieve emu eggs and a painting which had been loaned to Dame Zara Holt in 1966 to ‘decorate’ the Prime Minister’s Lodge for the Queen Mother’s visit.14 Jean enjoyed working in the NLA15 and had the ‘best job in the place’,16 but she found the first twelve months difficult (but not as difficult as in Sydney).17 And, said Harrison Bryan, ‘It was just the time for librarians with vision and enthusiasm to be in Canberra, an atmosphere in which Jean thrived’.18

Not only the Library but also Canberra itself was a world away from Sydney. Overcoming early loneliness,19 she claimed to enjoy living in Canberra (and it appears that Baggins did too – ‘Glad Baggins feels he can be a Canberra cat’ wrote Alan Fleming).20 Her enjoyment of Canberra is surprising (I am not sure whether Baggins shared her enjoyment: he suffered from hay-fever and conjunctivitis in Canberra),21 given the Canberra of the 1970s: Canberra can be very cold (especially in contrast to the Outback); most people left work at 4.51 p.m. (but Jean was used to working long hours after other staff had left), there was little social life and few restaurants, and there were no harbour views (she said that the Canberra hills made up for this loss).22 She planned to stay in Canberra and was quite comfortable financially, enjoying her work and her life. She bought a ‘guvvy’ house (built for government employees) and enjoyed her garden, planting roses, which became a continuing interest.

Then into her Garden of Eden came the snake. Dr. George Chandler became Director General of the NLA in 1974, following Alan Fleming’s early retirement. Chandler was British and came to Australia with excellent qualifications, experience in large British public libraries and an international standing in librarianship, along with the expertise to develop automation at the NLA and automated resource sharing in Australia.

And his own plans. There appear to be two strands, perhaps three, to Jean’s problems with Chandler: his plans for the NLA, his management style, and perhaps his British library education. Chandler wanted to reorganize the Library on the subject department basis he knew from British public libraries, with plans for ‘a whole lot of National Libraries. E.g. National Music Library, National Film Library, National Humanities Library, etc.’,23 which did not include ALAIN/ALBIS and overrode all that the Library has been working towards: ‘he thinks he can just superimpose it [his own plans] & his answer to criticism is that we will be promoted!’24 Chandler’s management style was not consultative (in contrast to that of Fleming, who was always ready to listen to librarians),25 which compounded the problems caused by his lack of knowledge of Australia, Australian systems and the public service (possibly an important factor in Chandler’s being appointed, as Fleming’s public-service background had helped him maintain the independence of the NLA). Chandler’s plans were not supported by senior staff, and he ‘appeared not to find it easy to understand completely the Australian scene, far less adjust to it’.26

Jean reacted quickly (to avoid an experience similar to that of working with Brideson at the PLSA?):

April 1st, 1974: Chandler arrived;

July: Jean questioned whether she was wasting her time at the NLA;27

October: Jean discussed a position with Monash University;

December: Jean accepted the Monash position, and by

January 1975 she had left.

Although this sequence was rapid, Jean knew of Chandler’s appointment before he began work – there is an intriguing letter to Jean from Geoffrey Alley dated February 23rd, 1974 in which Alley in New Zealand – in reply to a letter from Jean which I have not seen – wrote that Chandler was an ‘English import … usual crippling limitations’.28 Jean would have known quite a bit about Chandler before he arrived: she knew people who knew him, he had a worldwide reputation, and, while Jean was editor of ALJ, she had published a review of a book by Chandler (it was damned with faint praise).29 And Chandler’s 1971 publication Libraries in the East had received an even less favourable review by NLA staff member Dulcie Penfold, who wrote ‘one cannot help wondering “East of where?”’.30

Although Jean later said that, had it not been for Chandler, she would have remained at the NLA31 (I presume she meant until her retirement), there were other factors which influenced her decision, including the decline of the Whitlam (Labor) Government, which had given so much support to the development of the NLA. And the Monash offer may have been too good to refuse. Also, there was little possibility of furthering her career at the NLA, both because the most senior appointment would not be vacant again for some years and because the appointment of a woman still seemed impossible. Also the Garden of Eden had not been without its problems: although Osborn had encouraged her to apply for the position of Director General following Fleming’s retirement – ‘I feel that you are far and away the best librarian in Australia and would like to get things going to propose your candidacy. I feel that it is an opportune time, especially with Whitlam’s expression of equality for men and women’32 – Jean did not apply, ‘because … I do not want to have anything to do with the politicking, intrigue and the gossip that is certain to break out here in the next few months’.33 The stress at this time led Jean to visit a doctor, who recommended that she take a month’s leave because she was ‘showing signs of nervous exhaustion’ and had been under ‘considerable strain’.34

The stress may also have been caused by her usual heavy workload: in addition to her work Jean continued her involvement in the LAA, attending conferences, giving papers, mentoring, accrediting library schools, writing about librarianship, etc. She also wrote A report on the administration of public libraries in South Australia.35 At the time her friend and past colleague, Ray Olding, was State Librarian of South Australia. Olding said that there was an attempt by elements within the Premier’s Department to move the Libraries Department into the Premier’s Department instead of allowing the State Library to be a government department with the State Librarian being the Permanent Head of Department reporting directly to the Minister for Education. Olding and the then Minister for Education, Hugh Hudson, opposed the move, and Hudson asked Jean to write a report on this and other library matters. Nobody was surprised when Jean agreed with Olding and Hudson that the Library should remain independent (although this independence was to last only a short time).

Jean’s brief stint at the NLA could be called unfinished business. There had been the early ‘excitement of the Fleming years at the NLA when we worked so hard to realize our dream of a nation-wide information service’,36 dreams which looked possible because the Library had the support of the Whitlam Government. Looking back while she was still at the Library, she thought that she had been ‘of some use’,37 and perhaps been the most successful in Films and Music, which was not where she expected it.38 But there were too many problems: ‘Fido is really winning on so many fronts’.39 As Jean wrote to Alan Fleming, ‘Of course I feel a bit of a weasel already – & I really like & believe in the NLA – always have. But I just cannot stand the present set-up. You would have a fit …’40


1   Andrew Osborn to Jean Whyte, May 15th, 1973. SU: M 465.

2   Transcript of a conversation between Jean Whyte and Geoffrey Alley, 1981. MON 1059: 2000/68/5.

3   Harrison Bryan. ‘Jean Primrose Whyte’. ALJ 38 (1) 1989, 11.

4   Alan Fleming to Jean Whyte, March 24th, 1972. NLA: MS 9616.

5   ‘Doubling the number’. Canberra Times, September 28th, 1972.

6   Jean Whyte. ‘The National Library’. ALJ 17 (8) 1968, 257–258.

7   Harrison Bryan. ‘Jean Primrose Whyte’. ALJ 38 (1) 1989, 12.

8   Janice Kenny. National Library of Australia, 1984, 15. When I was a librarianship student, I was given a list of steps for developing projects, the first step (before any planning whatsoever) was to choose an acronym.

9   Jean Whyte. ‘Retirement Reminiscences’, 1988. NLA: MS 9616.

10  Also referred to as the National Sound Archive.

11  William T. Cooper. 158 watercolour paintings reproduced in Joseph M. Forshaw. Parrots of the world, 1973.

12  Interview: Graeme Powell, 2008. The National Archives of Australia collected only public records of government.

13  Harrison Bryan. ‘Jean Primrose Whyte’. ALJ 38 (1) 1989, 11.

14  Jean Whyte to D. Eddowes, December 12th, 1972. NLA: MS 9616. Materials were for loan only in special circumstances.

15  Jean Whyte to Karen Foley, November 14th, 1972. NLA: MS 9616.

16  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, October 21st, 1973. NLA: MS 9862.

17  Ibid.

18  Harrison Bryan. ‘Jean Primrose Whyte’. ALJ 38 (1) 1989, 12.

19  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, September 3rd, 1974. NLA: MS 9862.

20  Alan Fleming to Jean Whyte, September 23rd, 1972. NLA: MS 9616.

21  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, October 15th, 1974. NLA: MS 9862.

22  Jean Whyte to Malvina Overy, August 14th, 1973. NLA: MS 9616.

23  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, September 3rd, 1974. NLA: MS 9862.

24  Ibid.

25  Interview: Graeme Powell, 2008.

26  ‘Chandler, George (1915–[1992])’. In Harrison Bryan, ed., ALIAS, 1988–1991, Vol. 1, 144–145.

27  Jean Whyte to G.R. Manton, July 24th, 1974. NLA: MS 9616.

28  Geoffrey Alley to Jean Whyte, February 23rd, 1974. J. McEldowney Personal Collection, Dunedin, New Zealand.

29  Spencer Routh. Review of How to find out, a guide to sources of information for all, arranged by the Dewey Decimal Classification by G. Chandler. ALJ 13 (2) 1964, 85.

30  Dulcie Penfold. Review of Libraries in the East by G. Chandler. ALJ 21 (3) 1972, 128–129.

31  Transcript of a conversation between Jean Whyte and Geoffrey Alley, 1981. MON 1059: 2000/68/5.

32  Andrew Osborn to Jean Whyte, May 15th, 1973. SU: M 465.

33  Jean Whyte to Andrew Osborn, June 15th, 1973. SU: M 465.

34  Brian Andrea. [Medical certificate], October 4th, 1973. NLA: MS 9616.

35  Jean Whyte. A report on the administration of public libraries in South Australia. NLA: MS 9616.

36  Jean Whyte. ‘Retirement Reminiscences’, 1988. NLA: MS 9616.

37  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, October 21st, 1973. NLA: MS 9862.

38  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, September 3rd, 1974. NLA: MS 9862.

39  Ibid. Jean (and others) privately referred to Chandler as ‘Fido’.

40  Jean Whyte to Alan Fleming, October 15th, 1974. NLA: MS 9862.

Jean Primrose Whyte

   by Coralie Elsenore Janis Jenkin