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Borchardt, Dietrich Hans (1916–1997)

by John Horacek

Dietrich Borchardt, by Leone Mills, 1965

Dietrich Borchardt, by Leone Mills, 1965

State Library of Victoria, 49388609

Dietrich Hans Borchardt was one of Australia’s most eminent librarians and bibliographers, with a reputation that extended overseas through his work in countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, New Zealand and the United States.

DHB (as he was often known) was born in Hanover, into an upper-middle-class Jewish family. His father, a doctor, died when he was eight.

With the coming of Nazi anti-semitic policies in the 1930s, life for the Borchardt family became increasingly difficult. DHB’s education was interrupted, and he had to take what employment he could find. This included a good deal of farm labouring, as well as stints as a cultural guide in Florence, where he also worked for a specialist firm of antiquarian booksellers.

To find work, he had to move around frequently, and during his teens and early 20s, he lived at various times in Switzerland, Italy and Spain. He was proud of having mastered so many skills – ploughing with oxen, delivering pigs, milking cows and the like.

When the political situation in Europe became desperate, DHB was lucky to obtain a visa to New Zealand, where he began his antipodean existence in June 1939. Gradually, he was able to resume his education, eventually taking a BA in 1944 and an MA in 1947. He gained his library qualifications at the New Zealand Library School, and found his first professional position in the University of Otago Library at the end of 1947.

While he was grateful to New Zealand for the opportunities he was given, he soon began to look for opportunities in Australia and, in 1950, accepted the position of deputy librarian at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. There he served for 14 years (from 1953 as university librarian) which were, in many ways, years of struggle and disappointment. There were many obstacles – the physical condition of the library, the need to raise the status of the position of the librarian in the university administration, the lack of funds and the need to build up the staff. In 1965, therefore, when he was offered the position of foundation librarian at the new La Trobe University in Victoria he seized it immediately. At La Trobe, where he remained until he retired at the end of 1981, his career reached its zenith.

DHB made a lasting contribution to the world of scholarship in Australia in a variety of ways. The most obvious is the library at La Trobe University, which was named after him upon his retirement. Being the first full-time employee of the university (as he was proud to tell people), he was ideally placed to ensure the library was fully considered in the university’s plans whether physical, financial, administrative or intellectual. In consequence, he was able to develop a library service that, to this day, is greatly appreciated by its regular users. La Trobe acknowledged his achievement with the degree of doctor of the university in 1992.

His writing and bibliographic work has a permanent place in any academic collection. He was a leader in the compilation of reference works and bibliographies on Australian studies, some time before this became a widely accepted field of work. The Checklist of Royal Commissions will remain an essential tool for students of Australian history and politics. His Australian Bibliography (3rd edition, 1979) remains a fundamental reference tool, and there are many other bibliographies and indexes on Australian themes that he compiled or edited over the years, culminating in the 470-page Australia: A Guide to Sources (1987), published by Fairfax, Syme and Weldon as part of the massive 11-volume set Australia: A Historical Library.

DHB also wrote extensively on editing, printing, the book in Australia, the literature on psychology, statistics and government publications. Altogether, the bibliography of his writings (not including book reviews) runs to more than 200 items.

He was also influential in the growth of librarianship as a profession in Australia. He was a firm believer in the importance of tertiary education for librarians, and his long association with the course at RMIT was one of the achievements for which that institution granted him an honorary doctorate.

Tertiary qualifications, in his view, required an academic comportment in their recipients, and he expected librarians as professionals to engage in research and publication. For this reason, he founded the journal Australian Academic & Research Libraries in 1970, continuing as editor until 1984.

DHB was for many years involved with the Library Association of Australia (LAA) and the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services (as they were then called), the Committee of Australian University Librarians and the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand among others. He was one of the first Australian librarians to play a leading role in the International Federation of Library Associations. The LAA recognised his contribution by making him a Fellow in 1964, and giving him the HCL Anderson award (the highest honor for a professional librarian) in 1978.

DHB travelled widely, proud to uphold the prestige of Australian librarianship overseas; he was an adviser for UNESCO in Turkey, a visiting professor in the United States and advised on developing library services in Indonesia.

He married his first wife, Janet, in New Zealand in 1944; she died in 1988. There are two children surviving him from that marriage. He and his second wife, Pam, were married in 1989.

DHB’s achievements as a librarian, scholar and bibliographer were recognised nationally through the award of the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee medal in 1977, and he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1982.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 21 July 1997, p C3

Citation details

John Horacek, 'Borchardt, Dietrich Hans (1916–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/borchardt-dietrich-hans-16360/text28320, accessed 8 April 2020.

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