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George Henry Pitt (1891–1972)

by G. L. Fischer

This article was published:

George Henry Pitt (1891-1972), by Henry Krischock, 1948

George Henry Pitt (1891-1972), by Henry Krischock, 1948

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11108

George Henry Pitt (1891-1972), librarian, archivist and historian, was born on 21 January 1891 at Norwood, Adelaide, one of five children of James Pitt, jeweller, and his wife Annie, née Jeffrey. George attended Rose Park and Norwood public schools, won a public exhibition and proceeded to Prince Alfred College. Although he was not especially attracted to librarianship, he accepted the position of junior cataloguing clerk at the Public Library of South Australia in 1906. Told that he would be expected to undertake a university course, he enrolled at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1920). To disguise the fact that he was only 15, he changed from short pants to long trousers before going to evening-classes, but, when his age became known, had to abandon his course temporarily.

Promoted to cataloguer in 1910 and senior cataloguer in 1918, Pitt published his Alphabetical List of Serial Publications: Scientific, Technical and Historical (1914). His application, accuracy and systematic skills equipped him for the demands of author-and-subject cataloguing and general indexing—two fields that were to play an important part in the future management of archives and libraries. At St Theodore's Anglican Church, Rose Park, on 8 December 1915 he married Ruby Calley, a tailoress; they were later to separate.

In 1917-18, as a preliminary step towards the establishment of the State archives in line with G. C. Henderson's proposals (1915), Pitt listed South Australian records held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the Public Library of South Australia. His appointment as archivist in charge of the library's new archives department on 1 February 1919 was the first professional archival appointment in Australia. With one assistant he did some initial work in the library until, in 1920, an old government building off North Terrace was ready for the storage of records and use by readers. Because the little theoretical writing on archival management then available in English was not widely circulated, Pitt devised his own techniques which reflected some library practices familiar to him. While his methods did not obscure provenance, they were not primarily based on it, and, as the volume of records increased, his system of accession register-books and dictionary catalogue had to be modified. Some aspects of his archival administration foreshadowed later Australian practice, notably his successful advocacy of legislation in 1925 to regulate the disposal of public documents, and his control of records by series units.

As archivist, Pitt provided the kind of professional help that Henderson wanted for researchers, an achievement that owed much to Pitt's skill as a cataloguer and indexer. Recognizing the need for specialized indexing to complement the main catalogue, he compiled detailed indexes to shipping arrivals and passenger lists (1836-1900), the official files of the colonial secretary's office, and parliamentary papers. He also laid the foundation of a pictorial collection which included a systematic record of Adelaide's architectural development. It was all done on a modest budget and, for six years in the 1930s, without an assistant. He happily worked long hours. Although he later said that the creation of the archives department was a demanding task, he saw it as one of the two achievements of his professional life that pleased him most.

With archival services closed (from March 1942) and the records safely dispersed for fear of enemy bombing, in November 1943 Pitt was appointed librarian-in-charge of the planned Adelaide Lending Service and sent to observe practices in other States. Two years of delay followed. Then, in less than three months and helped by an enthusiastic young staff, he assembled, catalogued and made service arrangements for the stock of 11,000 books. Lending began on 19 March 1946. This was the other professional achievement that most pleased him.

On 17 March 1948 Pitt was appointed principal librarian. Soon after, he began a tour of libraries in Britain and the United States of America. He was impressed by some municipal library services and the interest in non-book materials; he was less impressed with library involvement in community work, particularly when he suspected fundamental cataloguing was neglected. In March 1949 he submitted a detailed plan for reorganization to the Libraries Board, the chief concern of which was the provision of adequate space for the library's expanding public services. When the government did nothing to overcome the problem, he had no alternative but to continue to reduce the stock of out-dated and non-South Australian material to make room for current needs. It was a measure he regretted, but, as with the disposal of some types of archival material in earlier years, he did not shirk decisions. His reorganization plan also recommended the creation of a new dictionary catalogue (begun in 1950) for the reference library.

Pitt encouraged greater use of the library's many services, negotiated to set up professionally staffed libraries in government departments, and established a lending service for children. Lacking strong support from the Libraries Board and virtually any government interest, he was unable effectively to promote municipal public libraries, though he had at least provided the prototype with the Adelaide Lending Service. He served on the council of the Australian Institute of Librarians (1939-40 and 1947-48) and on its cataloguing and classification committee (1945-46). In 1963 he was made a fellow of the institute's successor, the Library Association of Australia.

He contributed to the history of his State by writing a chapter in The Centenary History of South Australia (1936), a monograph on The Press in South Australia, 1836 to 1850 (1946), and articles in journals. Pitt lectured on Australian history to combined University of Adelaide-Workers' Educational Association classes. His research notes, compiled as archivist in answer to countless historical queries, were filed in the archives for public use. As principal librarian, his involvement in history was less direct but his interest remained, though his attempt to create a museum-collection of printed items illustrating South Australian life had to be abandoned.

His professional dedication inspired a younger generation of librarians, some of whom later took up senior positions in South Australia and elsewhere. Those who worked with him were expected to give of their best at all times. Pitt was a ready listener who acknowledged their contributions. He respected civilized values, recognized the case for promoting women to senior positions, opposed censorship, and had much common sense and humour. He displayed a somewhat old-fashioned courtesy in formal staff relations and throughout his career always had 'the honour to be' the board's 'Obedient Servant'. Reflecting on his work, he hoped that any criticism would relate to what he had done and not to what he had to leave undone. He retired in February 1955.

Of middle height and fair complexion, Pitt had a voice with a slightly reedy timbre. His pastimes included tennis, swimming, dancing, music and, above all, reading. He lived in modest rooms and accumulated few possessions—libraries contained all the books he wished to read. Pitt's passion for indexing was almost a way of life. His administrative commitments were laid out chronologically on small cards in a tray, and he made an author-index to his notes on the numerous books he read for pleasure. In retirement he several times travelled abroad. He had been raised in the Unitarian Church, but later became an agnostic. Survived by his daughter, he died on 4 April 1972 in North Adelaide and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $157,524.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Bridge, A Trunk Full of Books (Adel, 1986)
  • H. Bryan (ed), ALIAS: Australia's Library, Information and Archives Services: An Encyclopaedia of Practice and Practitioners (Syd, 1988-91)
  • Libraries Board of South Australia, Annual Report, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), no 54, 1948-56
  • Archives and Manuscripts, vol 4, no 7, 1972, p 2
  • Australian Library Journal, May 1972, p 176
  • South Australiana, vol 11, no 2, 1972
  • G. L. Fischer, 'The South Australian Archives Department: Its Founders and Contribution to South Australian Historical Studies', Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, vol 13, 1985, p 5
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5, 8 Apr 1972
  • Pitt papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • N. Adams, interview with George Pitt (transcript, 1969, State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

G. L. Fischer, 'Pitt, George Henry (1891–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Henry Pitt (1891-1972), by Henry Krischock, 1948

George Henry Pitt (1891-1972), by Henry Krischock, 1948

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11108

Life Summary [details]


21 January, 1891
Norwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


4 April, 1972 (aged 81)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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.