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Jean Fleming Arnot (1903–1995)

by David J. Jones

This article was published:

Jean Fleming Arnot (1903–1995), librarian, trade unionist, and women’s rights activist, was born on 23 April 1903 at Pymble, Sydney, youngest of four surviving daughters of Scottish-born James Fleming Arnot, bank accountant and later bookseller and lending library proprietor, and his wife Jane, née Thorn, who was a daughter of Henry Thorn, a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly. After attending a small private school and Fort Street Public School, Jean was educated at Marrickville Public School and won a bursary to Fort Street Girls’ High School, Sydney (1916–20), where, inspired by her teacher Fanny Cohen, she excelled in mathematics. Obliged by her father’s ill health to earn a living and abandon hope of attending university, she took the New South Wales public service entrance examination and was appointed temporary junior library assistant at the Public Library of New South Wales in March 1921, following an interview with the principal librarian, W. H. Ifould.

Arnot underwent intensive training, initially in the reference department, and became permanent. Following further examinations in 1923 and 1931 she joined the professional division of the public service. She studied economics for two terms at the University of Sydney before inflexible shift work prevented her from completing a degree. This was not regarded as a handicap by Ifould, a non-graduate, but would later count against her when applying for senior positions.

Showing particular aptitude for cataloguing, Arnot worked in that department from 1938 and for most of her career. She compiled the department’s rules for cataloguing periodicals, which were published in 1939. From 1941 she taught at the library’s training school and later for the Library Association of Australia (LAA) registration examination. Her approach to the card catalogue was not rigid: when users could not find items, she added entries and amended the rules accordingly. Her influence was valued: John Metcalfe, who succeeded Ifould, referred to the card catalogue as ‘Miss Arnot’s baby’ (Arnot 1991).

During 1942 Arnot chaired the successful Book Week Appeal for the Camp Library Headquarters based at the Public Library, collecting and distributing books for Australian troops serving in World War II. She compiled the first detailed listing of newspapers held in the reference department and Mitchell Library, which was published in 1944. That year she was promoted to head the country circulation department. In 1946 she applied for the position of principal librarian at the Public Library of Queensland but was not interviewed. She protested against the appointment of a less-qualified man in a letter to the Courier-Mail.

Having been awarded travel grants by both the British Council and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Arnot undertook a study tour of major libraries in Britain and the United States of America in 1948 and 1949. The New South Wales Public Service Board also asked her to examine library services for inmates of state institutions. Her observations enabled her to make a major contribution to the improvement of access to books in prisons, children’s homes, and mental hospitals. Appointed head cataloguer in 1950, she was unexpectedly made acting Mitchell librarian in November 1956 to cover the absence of Phyllis Mander Jones. Bitterly disappointed in June 1958 that the Mitchell librarianship was simply added to the duties of the deputy principal librarian, Gordon Richardson, she resumed her cataloguing position, which she held until her retirement on 19 April 1968.

Outside the library Arnot was active in her trade union, her professional association, and a host of other organisations. She had joined the Public Service Association of New South Wales in the early 1930s, outraged that women were entitled to only 54 percent of the male wage rate: ‘we had this low salary and it just bit into my soul really—the injustice of it’ (Arnot 1979). In 1937 she joined the Council of Action for Equal Pay and was inspired by Muriel Heagney, one of its founders. That year she addressed the PSA and the Australian Public Service Federation on equal pay, using a carefully researched, rational, and persuasive approach to this divisive issue: both male-dominated organisations subsequently affirmed the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. For many years she held office in the PSA; she chaired its women’s council and was awarded its gold medal in 1944. It would not be until 1963 that she enjoyed the benefits of equal pay in the public service.

A foundation member of the Australian Institute of Librarians, Arnot was an office-bearer and conference speaker from its earliest years. In 1961 she was one of two Australian delegates attending the International Conference on Cataloguing Principles in Paris. She was a member of the National Council of Women of New South Wales and, encouraged to stand by Ruby Board, was elected president (1960–66). In addition, she was prominent in the Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association; the Women’s Club (Sydney); the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Sydney (president 1953–54, 1959–60); the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (president 1955–57); the Australian Freedom from Hunger Campaign; and the League of Women Voters. From the early 1930s to 1969 she was a member of the Kooroora Club.

After her retirement Arnot worked part time as a cataloguer for the antiquarian bookseller Isidoor Berkelouw, and until 1980 was honorary librarian of the Royal Australian Historical Society. She contributed biographies, including on former colleagues, to the Australian Dictionary of Biography; helped plan libraries for colleges of advanced education; and catalogued private libraries. Remaining active in many organisations and in demand as a public speaker, she still found time to welcome to her home researchers and oral historians seeking to draw on her excellent memory.

Elected a fellow of the LAA in 1963, Arnot was appointed MBE in 1965. Her pragmatic approach to catalogues influenced a generation of staff and students, while her forty-year advocacy of equal pay for work of equal value was a major contribution to the cause. Fresh-faced and usually smiling, she was ‘gracious, broad-minded, good-humoured, articulate, observant, caring and eternally curious’: talking with her ‘one shared her amusement, was enthused by her animation, and glimpsed in the fire in her eyes the resoluteness which sustained her’ (Jones 1995, 176). She never married, and lived in the family home for all her adult life. She died on 27 September 1995 in Sydney and was cremated after an Anglican service. The annual Jean Arnot memorial lecture and the Jean Arnot memorial fellowship of the National Council of Women of New South Wales and the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women commemorate her.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Arnot, Jean F. ‘Embedded in the Soul.’ In Taking a Stand: Women in Politics and Society, edited by Jocelynne A. Scutt, 116–28. Melbourne: Artemis, 1994
  • Arnot, Jean. Interview by Amy McGrath, 8 March 1979. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Arnot, Jean. Interview by John Macallister, 1991. State Library of New South Wales
  • Arnot, Jean. Interview by Rosemary Block, 1994. State Library of New South Wales
  • Arnot, Jean. Interviews by Ros Bowden, 1985, 1987, and ca. 1975–89. State Library of New South Wales
  • Jones, David J. ‘Jean Fleming Arnot MBE FLAA 1903–1995.’ Australian Library Journal 44, no. 4 (November 1995): 173–76
  • McLeod, Louise. ‘Women in Australian Librarianship: The Example of Jean Fleming Arnot.’ Australian Library Journal 56, no. 3–4 (November 2007): 322–34
  • Sorbello, Louise. ‘Jean Fleming Arnot, Librarian and Activist, Fortian 1920.’ Fortian, 2015, 65
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 3147, Jean Fleming Arnot papers

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David J. Jones, 'Arnot, Jean Fleming (1903–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Jean Arnot (right), 1964

Jean Arnot (right), 1964

National Archives of Australia, A1501, A5216/1

Life Summary [details]


23 April, 1903
Pymble, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


27 September, 1995 (aged 92)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism