Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Symes, Olga Lesle (1925–1982)

by Carmel Maguire and Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Olga Lesle Symes (1925-1982), librarian, was born on 22 August 1925 at Chatswood, Sydney, elder child of Hessel Alexander Muldoon, railway clerk, and his wife Olive Gertrude, née Lord, both born in New South Wales. Educated at Hornsby Girls’ High School, Lesle passed the Leaving certificate in 1942 with honours in botany.

Appointed junior library assistant at the Public Library of New South Wales on 12 July 1943, Muldoon was one of the earliest students of the first Australian library school, organised by John Metcalfe. On 15 September 1944 she obtained the preliminary certificate at the first examination conducted by the Australian Institute of Librarians (a forerunner of the Library Association of Australia, later the Australian Library and Information Association). In 1946 she was assigned to Newcastle Technical College library, resigning in January 1950. In 1950-51 she worked at the Fisher Library, University of Sydney. She studied part time at the university in 1945-65, but did not graduate.

On 8 May 1951 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, Lesle married Francis Stephen Symes. Then an arts student, Frank had served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II and later became a bookseller. After working part time at the Fisher Library in 1956, Lesle returned to full-time employment at Email Ltd’s technical library in 1958. Briefly at Blackfriars Correspondence School in 1961, Symes took over Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd’s library and information service in June that year. She developed it into a vital and influential special library system. In 1967-71 she represented special libraries on the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services. As president (1967-69, 1973-74) of the special libraries section of LAA, she organised conferences which helped to set Australian librarianship in the direction of automation and other applications of information science.

Leaving ACI in 1971, she established Lesle Symes Information Services Pty Ltd and was consulted about the founding and management of information services. She provided educational courses and her policy advice included the report that resulted in the transfer from the Public Library to State government departments of responsibility for staffing their libraries. The Librarians’ Automation Group grew out of a residential workshop held in 1966 at Armidale. Symes edited the quarterly bulletin, L.A.G., which recorded every automated library system created in the period. The group was subsumed in the Library Automated Systems Information Exchange (LASIE) of which she was executive director in 1975-76.

Symes was appointed MBE in 1970 and a fellow of the LAA in 1971. She was also an associate of the Australian Society of Accountants. ‘Energetic, imaginative, hardworking . . . tireless, proactive and professional’, she was generous to younger aspirants, and was mindful early of the need to move librarianship beyond traditional roles towards other disciplines. She was a woman of outstanding beauty of which she was seemingly unaware. A colleague described her as ‘tall, with flowing black hair and . . . gypsy dress style’. She smoked using an exotic cigarette holder. Survived by her husband and their son and three daughters, Symes died of cancer on 30 January 1982 in her home at Bilgola Plateau, Sydney. Her body was given to the Cumberland College of Health Sciences. A memorial lecture in her honour was delivered biennially at ALIA’s special libraries section conference from 1985 to 2003.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Jones, The Australian Librarian’s Manual: Volume 3, Glossary (1985)
  • Australian Library Journal, October 1971, p 42
  • Australian Library Journal, February 2000, p 65
  • Incite (Sydney, NSW), 5 March 1982, p 4
  • Australian Special Libraries News, March 1982, p 19
  • Conference Speakers, 9th Specials, Health and Law Libraries Conference, http://conferences.alia.org.au/shllc2001/papers/speakers.html, accessed 2 Sept 2011, copy held on ADB file)
  • private information

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Citation details

Carmel Maguire and Chris Cunneen, 'Symes, Olga Lesle (1925–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/symes-olga-lesle-15811/text27010, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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