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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Binns, Kenneth (1882–1969)

by Pauline Fanning

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Kenneth Binns, by Max Dupain, 1944

Kenneth Binns, by Max Dupain, 1944

National Library of Australia, 23199077

Kenneth Binns (1882-1969), librarian, was born on 28 November at Dunfermline, Fifeshire, Scotland, third son of Rev. Fred Binns, Congregational minister, and his wife Henrietta, née Johnstone. The family migrated to Australia in 1890 and he was educated at Cleveland Street Public School and Sydney Grammar School. In 1900 he joined the staff of the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney and attended night classes in the faculty of arts as a non-matriculated student. On 14 September 1909 Binns married Amy Jane Higgins (d.1968) at Redfern. Two years later he became a cataloguer in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, Melbourne, and in 1919 took over its Australian section. An outstanding early accession was James Cook's Endeavour journal, in the purchase of which in 1923 Binns played a significant part.

His foresight in promoting the erection of a building in Canberra for the growing national collections was nullified by government demands for increased office space. In 1926-27, as assistant librarian, Binns arranged the transport to Canberra of the parliamentary library's 68,000 volumes. From 1 January 1928, on Arthur Wadsworth's retirement, he was parliamentary librarian, but in difficult circumstances: the library was remote from sources of supply and from professional contacts, and accommodation problems continued. He did much to promote the intellectual life of the new capital, especially the Canberra Society of Arts and Literature and the University Association of Canberra; after the university college was established he served on its council. He was an active Congregationalist.

In 1934 Binns became the first Australian librarian to be awarded a Carnegie travelling fellowship; two years later the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave a grant to the library to support a free service for Commonwealth external territories. During World War II he extended facilities to military camps and established liaison offices in Melbourne and London; and in 1943 the Commonwealth National Library accepted temporary responsibility for the custody of archives other than those of armed service departments. The library's training school and film section were established during Binns's administration and he inaugurated some principal bibliographical activities, as well as encouraging research inquiries. He was unusual for his time in seeking university graduates of a high standard for his staff. He had been a leading foundation member of the Australian Institute of Librarians and was its president in 1940-44. He retired in 1947.

In 1930-39 Binns had been the Australian representative for the International Institute for Intellectual Co-operation, and after the war he was a member of the national committee, for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He was a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund's advisory board in 1939-53 and of the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board for twenty years before becoming its chairman in 1957-64. He was responsible for some of its more enlightened policies, but he did not retire until he was 81 and he and the board drew criticism for the banning of such books as V. Nabokov's Lolita. He had also been on the Australian National Film Board for three years from 1945. In 1964 he was appointed C.B.E.

Binns was a cautious, practical man whose period of office had spanned the difficult, restrictive years of the Depression and World War II. Nevertheless the library had emerged as a national institution, and many of its successful developments originated during his administration. He died in Canberra on 27 July 1969 and was cremated, survived by two daughters and by a son Kenneth Johnstone, who was under-treasurer of Tasmania in 1952-76.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Library Journal, June 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1960, 4, 6 July 1964
  • Groom papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Parliamentary Library and National Library of Australia Archives (Canberra)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Pauline Fanning, 'Binns, Kenneth (1882–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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