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Binns, Kenneth (1882–1969)

by Maurice Dunlevy

Kenneth Binns, by Samuel Wells, c.1924

Kenneth Binns, by Samuel Wells, c.1924

National Library of Australia, 6054532

Every librarian likes to remember his great purchasing coups and Kenneth Binns, who died in Canberra this week, was no exception.

The great Binns coup was the acquisition for the Commonwealth National Library of the original journal of Captain Cook's first voyage.

He recalled it in 1967 when he tape-recorded his reminiscences. There was something of a stir in library circles in 1923 when Sothebys announced in London that they were to sell the journals and other Cook manuscripts. In Sydney the Mitchell Library announced that it intended to buy them.

But when it came to assess the market the Mitchell became worried. It seemed that the price of the manuscript would go well beyond its resources, so it asked the Commonwealth Government to subsidise the purchase in the event of high bids.

This is where Mr Binns stepped in. When the Government asked his advice he argued that the Commonwealth should not subsidise a State collection but should buy the manuscript itself and it decided to do so.

After some political bargaining, it managed to acquire one of the National's greatest treasures for just over £5,000. To placate the Mitchell, the Government allowed it to hold the precious manuscripts for a year before they became part of the National's collection.

This great coup revealed two of the most important aspects of Kenneth Binns' character: his dedication to the ideal of a truly national library and his even deeper dedication to the ideal of the library being a community service.

When he finally got the Cook documents they didn't become buried treasure, as so many rare documents do when a librarian gets his acquisitive but officious hands upon them. He wanted the whole country to share in his achievement and in its own heritage. "In order that the value of this historic record should (be seen) as widely as possible", he told the tape recorder in 1967, "I arranged that copies should be distributed to every State school and private and public school in Australia". It was this concept of service that later led him to take the revolutionary step of throwing open a national library for public borrowing and it was also the underlying philosophy in his brilliant scheme for the reorganisation of Tasmanian library services when he performed a special assignment there in 1943.

Binns was one of Canberra's most remarkable citizens. Into his 86 years he crammed a great range of interests and activities and he became something of a legend in his lifetime.

He was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, birthplace of the great millionaire benefactor of free libraries, Andrew Carnegie, whose foundation was later to sponsor a study tour abroad for him.

Kenneth Binns was educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney where he became a junior assistant librarian in the Fisher Library under the poet-professor, John Le Gay Brereton. Later he joined the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library and became librarian in charge of the Commonwealth National Library in 1923.

In this role one of his enduring memories was how he organised the library's transfer from Melbourne to Canberra ready for the opening of Parliament House in 1927. Although the stocks were then only about 60,000 to 70,000 books, equal to about one year's current acquisitions, Australia's crazy railway system presented considerable transport problems.

It took him a year to plan the operation. The books were shifted in specially designed packing cases each holding 30 to 40 books in Dewey order and he eventually got them to the basement of Parliament House by a combination of different railway gauges, railway vehicles and trucks.

Because the basement could not accommodate them all, he was able to physically separate the stocks of the Parliamentary and National collections, a division he continued to emphasise from the time he became Parliamentary and National librarian in 1928.

He always wanted the National to be something more than a service to politicians. "He never lost sight of this ideal nor an opportunity to emphasise it", said one of his old colleagues, Mr L. C. Key, this week. "Under another chief it could have fallen into abeyance, even oblivion".

The depression affected Mr Binns deeply. A man of wide literary knowledge, an active member of the Canberra Society of Arts and Literature and always a friend of writers, he was troubled by the sight of a poet like Shaw Neilson cracking stones on a road for a living, and he did much to persuade the Government to establish the Commonwealth Literary Fund. He was on the CLF committee from 1939-53.

From 1930-39 he was Australian representative for the International Institute for Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations and in 1934 became the first Australian librarian to go abroad on a Carnegie grant. The contacts he made began to draw an increasing number of scholars to his little — and little-known — library.

During the war he helped persuade the Curtin Government to set up the War Archives Committee and having done that he argued that the preservation of archives should extend beyond the defence departments to all Government departments. Australian history, he said, didn't begin and end with a war.

It was partly due to his persistent advocacy that the Commonwealth Archives Office was established.

He retired from the library in 1947. During his period at the helm, 1928-1947, its collection grew from 80,000 to about 250,000.

Mr Binns was for many years a member of the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board and during part of his period it was labelled as a group of aged sons of former clergymen.

He built up a wide knowledge of the legal background of censorship and was able to argue censorship law confidently with lawyers. From 1957-64 he was chairman of the board. During this period it undertook two major reviews of the prohibited list and considerably liberalised Australia's approach to censorship.

In his leisure activities he also was a perfectionist. For many years he shared with Sir Roland Wilson the reputation of being Canberra's best amateur cabinetmaker.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Maurice Dunlevy, 'Binns, Kenneth (1882–1969)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/binns-kenneth-5238/text35040, accessed 24 August 2019.

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