Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Wallace Metcalfe (1901–1982)

by David J. Jones

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Thelma Constance Metcalfe

John Metcalfe, by Sidney Riley Studios, n.d.

John Metcalfe, by Sidney Riley Studios, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 862163

John Wallace Metcalfe (1901-1982), librarian, was born on 16 May 1901 at Blackburn, Lancashire, England, eldest of three sons of Henry Harwood Metcalfe, paper-bag maker, and his wife Lilian, née Wilcock.  The family migrated to New Zealand in 1908, then to Australia, living briefly in Adelaide before settling in Sydney in 1911.  Educated at Marrickville Superior Public School and Fort Street Boys’ High School, Metcalfe joined the State Department of Taxation in 1917.  After a few weeks he took up an appointment in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney.  He enrolled as an evening student, graduating (BA, 1923) with first-class honours in history.  In 1927 he won the Beauchamp prize for an essay on a literary subject.

In 1923 Metcalfe was appointed to the Public (State) Library of New South Wales.  When he failed cataloguing in the librarianship examination in 1928, the principal librarian, W. H. Ifould, arranged some practical experience for him.  Metcalfe developed a passion for the subject and in his own time compared cataloguing in the Public Library with five other codes.  To prevent a woman succeeding Ifould, Metcalfe was promoted to the new position of deputy principal librarian in 1932.  He delivered a paper on public library systems at a conference in Melbourne in 1933.  Awarded a Carnegie Corporation of New York travel grant, in 1934 he began a six-month study tour of libraries in the United States of America and Europe.  His report was widely circulated.

Metcalfe became, in his own words, 'technical adviser and chief publicity writer' for the Free Library Movement, a citizens’ lobby group, in 1935.  Led by Geoffrey Cochrane Remington, the FLM gained representation on the Libraries Advisory Committee, established in 1937.  As the committee secretary, Metcalfe wrote most of its report and helped to draft a bill, which became the basis for the New South Wales Library Act, 1939, and the blueprint for government-subsidised public libraries.

In 1937 Metcalfe helped to found the first local professional association of librarians, the Australian Institute of Librarians (from 1949 the Library Association of Australia and from 1989 the Australian Library and Information Association).  He drafted much of its constitution, served as the institute’s first honorary general secretary, and devised its examination scheme, setting the first national professional standards for librarianship in Australia.  At the Public Library he conducted a library training course for teachers in 1938 and prepared an abridged edition of the Dewey decimal classification for school libraries.  He directed the first formal Australian library school at his library from 1939 and wrote most of its textbooks.  President (1946-48) of AIL, he masterminded its transformation, with wider membership and an expanded role, into the LAA in 1949.  He was interim president (1949-50) and honorary general secretary (1950-53).  Foundation editor (1951-54) of the Australian Library Journal, he again served (1956-59) as LAA president.

In 1942 Metcalfe had succeeded Ifould as principal librarian and from 1944 he was the executive member of the Library Board of New South Wales.  Then Australia’s most influential librarian, he became known to the public through radio broadcasts and journal articles.  In 1947 he was an Australian delegate to the second United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization general conference in Mexico City, chairing a working party on public libraries.  He established a central purchasing and cataloguing scheme for books for New South Wales public libraries and arranged for government department libraries to be staffed by his own officers, a system that remained in place until the 1970s.  An archives department was established in the library in 1953.  When Metcalfe left the Library Board in 1959, two-thirds of the New South Wales population had access to a free public library.

Metcalfe had been seconded in 1956 to the University of Sydney library to survey its future needs, returning to the Public Library next year.  In 1959 he joined the University of New South Wales as university librarian and director-designate of the first library school at an Australian university.  The school of librarianship opened in 1960, offering a postgraduate diploma and soon adding a master’s program and the opportunity for doctoral research.  He revelled in his new roles.  In 1963 he travelled to Britain to buy books and to visit library schools.  He returned to Australia via the United States in 1964, presenting a seminar at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, on the organisation of information.  In 1966 he relinquished the university librarianship; two years later he retired from the school of librarianship.

Remaining active professionally, Metcalfe was, according to a younger librarian, Jack Nelson, 'as tendentious, polemical and argumentative as ever'.  Widely if not always sympathetically reviewed, Metcalfe’s major works were Information Indexing and Subject Cataloging (1957), Subject Classifying and Indexing of Libraries and Literature (1959), Alphabetical Subject Indication of Information (1964) and Information Retrieval, British & American, 1876-1976 (1976).  Of the first he declared:  'if a dozen people understand it that will be good enough'.

Metcalfe had been awarded, by examination, a fellowship (1936) of the Library Association of the United Kingdom.  He was made a fellow of the LAA in 1964 and nine years later was the first recipient of its highest professional honour, the H. C. L. Anderson award.  Scholarships at the University of New South Wales, the Metcalfe auditorium at the State Library of New South Wales and the Metcalfe medallion, awarded (1984-98) by ALIA for outstanding student work, commemorated him.

According to Metcalfe’s colleague Wilma Radford, he was 'unusually direct, forthright, honest' and often thoughtful and considerate, but he could also be 'rude and abrasive in confrontations'.  Although he could write for a popular audience and even in 'Basic English', his major works were impenetrable to many.  'He affected to despise literature', yet his writings were 'larded with literary allusions'.  A custodian of archival collections, he allegedly threw away some of the Public Library’s official records.  Although careful with money, he made anonymous donations to that institution; his widow also made major bequests to the library as well as to the University of New South Wales.

Metcalfe was a man of intense energy and wide interests, including Blissymbolics (a system of pictorial symbols for communication), mass observation, public opinion polls and documentary films.  An opponent of strict censorship, he appeared before the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1955 in a case involving 'objectionable' comics.  He was never active in politics but suspected that his liberal views led some people to believe that he was a communist.  Fascinated by the use of machines in libraries, he initiated trials of microfilm, catalogue card reproduction and copying equipment.  His influence on information theory has been acknowledged, and had he been writing at a time when information technology was more advanced, his ideas might have had even more impact.

Of average height, with erect bearing and a neatly trimmed moustache, Metcalfe often had a half-smile playing on his face.  He was more interested in what he was doing than how he appeared and towards the end of his career he had an air of eccentricity, although his mind remained as sharp as ever.

On 3 March 1934 at St Matthew’s Church of England, Manly, Metcalfe had married Thelma Constance (1898-1984), second daughter of Victorian-born parents Harry Vagg, farmer, and his wife Emily Ann, née Sallery.  Thelma was born on 10 September 1898 at Fitzroy, Melbourne.  Educated at Albury District School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1922; Dip.Ed., 1923), she taught languages in New South Wales public schools from 1922 until her marriage.

Mrs Metcalfe was an early member of the council of the Free Library Movement and president of the Lyceum Club (Sydney) in the 1940s.  Honorary secretary (1941-48) and president (1948-60) of the State branch of the National Council of Women, she lobbied for the foundation of the Nutrition Advisory Council, the Housekeepers’ Emergency Service and the Children’s Film (and Television) Council.  She was the State branch convenor on immigration until 1981.  President of the Australian National Council of Women for two terms, ending in 1960, she was elected life vice-president of the State branch in 1970.

Other organisations that she supported were the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association of Australia, the British Drama League, the New South Wales committee for International Children’s Book Week, the tenancy applications advisory committee of the State Housing Commission, the State division of the United Nations Association of Australia, the State division of the Arts Council of Australia and the Good Neighbour Council of New South Wales.  Seeing herself as 'the best Annual Meeting attender in Australia', she was valued by fellow members for her perseverance, tolerance, good humour and objectivity.  She was appointed MBE in 1956.

John Metcalfe died on 7 February 1982 at Katoomba and was buried in Penrith cemetery.  Thelma Metcalfe died on 18 May 1984 at Emu Plains and was buried in Kingswood cemetery.  They had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Rayward (ed), The Variety of Librarianship (1976), and Libraries and Life in a Changing World (1993), and Developing a Profession of Librarianship in Australia (1995)
  • C. Myall and R. C. Carter (eds), Portraits in Cataloging and Classification (1998)
  • J. P. Whyte and D. J. Jones, Uniting a Profession (2007)
  • Australian Library Journal, January 1959, p 36, May 1971, p 5, November 1973, p 423
  • N.C.W. News (Sydney), August 1984, p 6
  • D. J. Jones, W. H. Ifould and the Development of Library Services in New South Wales, 1912-1942 (PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 1993)
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. Metcalfe (ts, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • Australian Library and Information Association papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Wilma Radford—papers relating to J. Metcalfe (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information

Citation details

David J. Jones, 'Metcalfe, John Wallace (1901–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Metcalfe, by Sidney Riley Studios, n.d.

John Metcalfe, by Sidney Riley Studios, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 862163

Life Summary [details]


16 May, 1901
Blackburn, Lancashire, England


7 February, 1982 (aged 80)
Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia

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