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White, Sir Harold Leslie (1905–1992)

by Graeme Powell

This article was published online in 2017

Sir Harold White, by Louis Kahan, 1970

Sir Harold White, by Louis Kahan, 1970

National Library of Australia, 9899108

Sir Harold Leslie White (1905–1992), librarian, was born on 14 June 1905 at Numurkah, Victoria, third child of locally born parents James White, farmer, and his wife Beatrice Elizabeth, née Hodge. Harold attended the one-teacher Invergordon State School, winning a government scholarship to Wesley College, Melbourne (dux 1922). On the recommendation of his headmaster he was appointed a cadet cataloguer at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in 1923. The cadetship, and a Walter Powell scholarship from Wesley, enabled him to study full time at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1926; MA, 1928), and a Queen’s College scholarship to reside there while at university.

In 1923 the library adopted an additional name, Commonwealth National Library, a rather grandiose title for an institution that had only twelve staff and a collection of about fifty thousand volumes. It moved to Canberra in 1926 and 1927 and White was responsible for installing many of the books in the provisional Parliament House. In 1928 Kenneth Binns became parliamentary librarian and White his deputy. The two worked closely together for twenty years. While differing in backgrounds and temperament, they shared the conviction that ultimately the library would be an important national institution, comparable to the Library of Congress and the British Museum. White welcomed the extension of library activities into new areas: the collection of films; the assumption of custody in 1943 of some Commonwealth government archives; the use of microform technology to copy original documents; and the provision of reference and lending services to the general public as well as to parliamentarians. His vision became clearer in 1939 when, as a Carnegie scholar, he toured the United States of America and Europe and visited many of the great libraries and archives. He was especially impressed by the ideas of the new librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish.

On 18 October 1930 White had married Elizabeth Wilson, a teacher, at Queens College, Carlton, Victoria. The couple later built a house on a large block on Mugga Way, Red Hill, Canberra. They lived there for the rest of their lives and created a celebrated woodland garden. Over many years the house and garden were the venue for Sunday morning gatherings, where selected library staff met senior public servants, diplomats, academics, writers, and journalists. An enthusiastic advocate for Canberra, White took an active part in its cultural, educational, sporting, and social life. He represented the territory in Australian Rules football (1927); held executive positions with the Canberra Society of Arts and Literature (secretary 1927–34, treasurer 1935, committee member 1936, vice-president 1938); was treasurer (1929–44) and then vice-president (1945–48) of the University Association of Canberra; and a member of the council of Canberra University College (1945–49). His edited book, Canberra: A Nations Capital, was published in 1954.

White succeeded Binns as parliamentary librarian in 1947. The timing was good. In the 1947/48 Commonwealth budget the librarys allocation doubled and there were further large increases in subsequent years. Staff numbers rose rapidly. Under his leadership, collecting was intensified and broadened, with much greater use of compulsory deposit to acquire current Australiana. Major acquisitions included the 1297 Inspeximus issue of the Magna Carta (1952), the Kashnor collection on political economy (1952), and the first two instalments of the Nan Kivell collection (1959). There were also setbacks. Plans for a new or expanded building were repeatedly rejected or deferred by the government, leaving the librarys collections poorly housed in several scattered buildings. In 1957, to Whites disappointment, a committee headed by Sir George Paton criticised the hybrid nature of the library, and recommended that the parliamentary library and the Commonwealth archives be separated from the national library. These changes were brought into effect by the National Library Act 1960.

Appointed national librarian in 1960, White retained the position of parliamentary librarian until 1967. These were exciting years for the library. In 1963 cabinet finally accepted plans for a monumental National Library of Australia building standing beside Lake Burley Griffin, and it was opened in 1968. White heralded the end of the library’s forty years in the wilderness (White 1968), with the collections at last united in one place, and services for researchers and the general public greatly extended. With over five hundred staff and generous funding, White was now able to collect both current and older materials on a grand scale. A frequent traveller, he sought formed book collections of great diversity from all over the world. Able lieutenants, notably C. A. Burmester and Pauline Fanning, did much of the groundwork with vendors and donors, but White usually presided over the negotiations. He had a particular interest in Asian publications, Australian films, the new field of oral history, and the personal papers of notable Australians. In 1970 he ended his career on a triumphant note with the purchase of the final instalment of the Ferguson collection, the largest formed collection in the library.

Short in stature, White was tough, determined, voluble, a shrewd negotiator, and adept at using his networks. His staff admired his vision and drive while sometimes disparaging his management skills. State librarians tended to be wary, if not hostile, regarding him as an empire builder. Reluctantly, they conceded a leadership role to the library, as it alone had the resources needed to advance cooperative bibliographical projects. As chairman (1959–70) of the standing committee of the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services, he oversaw the creation of national union catalogues, the introduction of a centralised card catalogue service, and the first moves towards participation in computer-based bibliographic networks.

White was a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1969), and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1971). He was appointed CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1970. In his retirement Sir Harold prepared a report (1972) for the Malaysian government on its proposed national library, chaired (1973–87) the advisory committee of the Australian Encyclopaedia, and served (1975–90) on the National Memorials Committee. Citing his achievement in building the collection as ‘unparalleled in the history of Australian librarianship’ (Canberra Times 1983, 9), the Library Association of Australia bestowed on him the H. C. L. Anderson award in 1983. He maintained a strong interest in the National Library of Australia and was gratified when the council named its research fellowships in his honour in 1985. Predeceased by his wife in 1988, he died on 31 August 1992 in Canberra and was cremated; he was survived by two daughters and two sons.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Biskup, Peter. ‘Sir Harold White: Australia’s First National Librarian.’ Australian Journal of Communication 24, no. 3 (1997): 99-116
  • Canberra Times. ‘Library Award to White.’ 3 August 1983, 9
  • Cochrane, Peter, ed. Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library of Australia’s First 100 Years, 1901-2001. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2001
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Dynamic Force behind Australian Libraries.’ Canberra Times, 2 September 1992, 18
  • Fernon, Christine. ‘Staggering Out of the “Wilderness.”’ National Library of Australia News 18, no. 11 (August 2008): 3–8
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7599, Papers of Sir Harold White and Lady Elizabeth White
  • Osborn, Andrew, and Margaret Osborn. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, 1901-1927 and the Origins of the National Library of Australia. Canberra: Department of the Parliamentary Library in association with the National Library of Australia, 1989
  • West, Francis. ‘Harold Leslie White 1905-1992.’ Proceedings (Australian Academy of the Humanities), 1992. Marrickville, NSW: Southwood Press, 1993, 63-65
  • White, Sir Harold. Interview by Gavin Souter, 6 December 1984. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • White, Sir Harold. Interview by Peter Biskup, April 1988. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • White, Sir Harold. Speech 15 August 1968, transcript. Proceedings of the Official Opening of the first stage of the National Library of Australia held onsite on August 15 1968 in Canberra A.C.T., ORAL TRC 68. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graeme Powell, 'White, Sir Harold Leslie (1905–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-sir-harold-leslie-1557/text34524, published online 2017, accessed online 17 June 2019.

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