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Jean Primrose Whyte


Any list of Australian librarians who made a truly significant and lasting contribution to the profession in the second half of the twentieth century would have to include (in alphabetical order) Harrison Bryan, John Metcalfe and Jean Whyte. The first two named have not yet received the biographical recognition and analysis which they deserve, but that will surely come. For Jean Whyte we can be grateful that, after five years of painstaking research, Dr Coralie Jenkin, one of Jean’s students at Monash University, has written a very fitting professional biography.

I should state my interest from the outset. I am one of hundreds of Australian librarians whom she infected with what she called ‘library mania’ and who owe much of the success they achieved in their careers to Jean’s example, support and encouragement. We first met in 1959 when she became Public Services Librarian at the University of Sydney, where I was a Junior Library Assistant. She quickly identified me as someone who had potential, and then made sure that I didn’t let her down. In 1966 she was responsible for my enrolment at her alma mater, the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago, an experience which changed my life both professionally and personally. She was a member of the selection committee which appointed me to succeed Harrison Bryan as Librarian of the University of Sydney in 1980. And I am just one of hundreds who benefitted from her influence.

In the introductory chapter of her history of the Australian Institute of Librarians (left unfinished at her death and superbly completed by Dr David Jones) Jean repeated the standard warning of historians: ‘if we write to praise heroes and achievements we shall not create an enduring work’. In this biography its subject is a hero and her achievements are legion. Any Australian librarian could tell you that, if you mentioned the name of Jean Whyte. But neither she nor her achievements were perfect and complete, and that is where Dr Jenkin’s analysis and assessment are valuable. Jean’s career had its share of disappointments and frustrations and she often wished she had done more or had done differently. Her unbounded enthusiasm sometimes led her astray, and, in particular, several of her most important mentors and supporters disappointed her on closer inspection. But her essential commonsense soon put things right, and her talent for seizing the opportunity and turning it to her (and the profession’s) advantage overcame these setbacks.

At the Public Library of South Australia, then the University of Sydney, and later at the National Library of Australia Jean turned problems into challenges and inspired her staff to set their sights higher and achieve more. Any spare time or energy they had left over was expected to be channeled into the Library Association of Australia, and it usually was. In the last phase of her career, as founding Head of the pioneering Graduate School of Librarianship at Monash University, Jean had, and exploited, the opportunity to mould bright young minds and to encourage her students to perform better than they thought they could. She just assumed that you were as competent and dedicated as she was, and treated you accordingly. So you found yourself expected to perform better, and you somehow did. We are all better librarians, and better people, for having fallen under her influence. It is a debt we can repay only by trying to do the same for the next generation of librarians who work for us or study under us.

Jean was a modest and self-effacing person. If she read Coralie Jenkin’s book she would probably be both delighted and embarrassed, which shows what a good and balanced professional biography Dr. Jenkin has produced.

Neil A Radford

Jean Primrose Whyte

   by Coralie Elsenore Janis Jenkin