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Thorn, William Darbyshire (Bill) (1932–2014)

by Michael J. Richards

Bill Thorn’s thirty-two year career at the National Library of Australia encompassed the first great wave of change that flowed on from the introduction of computers to librarianship. While others were to be the pioneers of automation, he focussed on the need for his profession to maintain its traditional skills in bibliography and reference work. He lived through massive organisational change as well, and was for many staff at the library a generous, patient mentor and good counsel in sometimes difficult and ambiguous times. Provocatively, and quoting T. S. Eliot, he once asked ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ (The Rock, 1934), and in part his career could be seen as advocacy for wisdom in making the National Library’s choices. And although his steadfast conviction that ‘the printed word contained in books and periodicals is still the fundamental reason for the existence of libraries’, as he put it on retiring in 1987, may seem to many old-fashioned today, it resonated throughout his life. ‘I became a librarian because I was interested in books,’ he said on that occasion. ‘Thirty two years working in the National Library has not extinguished that interest but broadened it and deepened it.’

William Darbyshire Thorn was born in Richmond, Victoria on 7 August 1932, and grew up there. His family valued education: his mother qualified as a doctor at a time when women in that profession were still a rarity, and his father was an engineer. He and his two brothers attended Camberwell Grammar School. He first studied civil engineering at Melbourne University, at his father’s wish, but switched to a commerce degree with the intention of becoming a librarian and began his training at the Library School of the Public Library of Victoria during his second year at university.  In 1955 he graduated B. Com. and was appointed to the Commonwealth National Library as a trainee librarian. His continued training there was the usual mixture of on-the-job and formal learning of those days, and he qualified as a librarian in 1958. He began in cataloguing, as do most new librarians, then spent two years in acquisitions. In 1960 he became Chief Bibliographical Officer and Secretary of the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services (AACOBS), then the major national forum for libraries in Australia, and held that post until 1963.

This was the beginning of a time of extended organisational change, as the Parliamentary Library, based at what is now Old Parliament House and for many years encompassing a role as National Library as well as the library of the Parliament, became separate National and Parliamentary libraries under the National Library Act (1960). Thorn moved between them: three years in the Legislative Research Service of the Parliamentary Library, during which time he established its Statistical Service, was followed by three years as the National Library’s Chief Liaison Librarian at Australia House in London (1966-69). At this time the Library maintained an office in London, responsible for liaison with British libraries and acquisitions work at a time when much important collection material was being purchased abroad. He returned to Canberra quite soon after the new National Library building had opened in 1968, filling a series of middle management positions in user services and reference areas, including working as an advisor to the High Court on planning library services in the new High Court building.

He was then appointed to senior management as Director of the Australian National Social Sciences Library in 1975. This was one element in a fairly short-lived division of the National Library into subject specialist areas. Following this, in 1980 he was appointed as Assistant Director-General in charge of Reference Services, and served in that role until his position was abolished in a restructure in 1986.  He retired in 1987. Many at the library mourned his departure, knowing his qualities as a generous and supportive colleague and manager. For his part, Bill said to some he was grateful that he could spend more time with his wife Barbara, who was increasingly frail.

In his private life Bill was blessed with two long and happy marriages. He met Barbara Somervaille over the breakfast table at the hostel where they both lived as young Commonwealth public servants. They married in 1957 and had three children, two sons and a daughter. Barbara, like Bill worked initially as a librarian. In line with the norms of the times, she left work prior to the birth of their first child. She had a range of interests besides her family, editing a collection of letters by Bishop Mesac Thomas, the first bishop of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican diocese (published 1964), and working on a biography of Bishop Ernest Burgmann. While in the UK in the late 1960s she trained as a counsellor, a role that she exercised with Lifeline following the family’s return to Canberra. In 1983, Bill produced a book of her poems under the imprint of the Duyfken Press. After Barbara’s untimely death in 1990, in 1995 he married Angela Hume, a long-standing neighbour, widow of Len Hume and a good friend of Barbara’s. They spent nearly two decades together in loving companionship and travelled widely.

Apart from his family, his passion was for books and bibliography. A river of books flowed through his life, and his personal library was substantial. At its core was a treasured and significant collection of private press books, mostly from Australian and English presses, which he gave to the Museum of Printing at the New England Regional Art Gallery in the last months of his life.  He was for many years active in the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, convening its 1991 conference in Canberra while serving as president of the society 1991-92, and was a keen collector of bibliographical literature. Members of the conference committee recall his skill in running a committee, evident in the other areas of his life as well. He had the rare knack of genially putting people at their ease but knowing where to draw the line to get decisions made, recalls one colleague. And he was a maker as well as being good with people. His first interest was in letterpress printing. In 1974 he enrolled in an evening printing course at the then Canberra Technical College, and at the same time bought an Adana 5 x 3” table-top platen press, with which he printed the first in what became an unbroken series of Christmas cards which ended only with his death. In 1975 he acquired a larger press, a Chandler & Price 12 x 8” treadle platen manufactured about 1900, which he cherished and for which he found a new working home shortly before he died. The most substantial productions of his Duyfken Press were an edition of The Reformed Library Keeper (1650) by John Dury, published in 1977, and The Moon’s Horn, a collection of Barbara Thorn’s poems illustrated with linocuts by Hilary Archer (1983). He also relished jobbing printing such as marmalade and jam labels, did signs for the band of a nephew, the Neo-Penguins, and for many years printed typographically elaborate letterpress invitations for the Odd Volumes, a congenial and much-valued luncheon club for retired National Library staff he convened after his retirement, on catalogue cards salvaged from the Library. In later years his interest in bookbinding somewhat overtook printing, and he described himself as a hobby printer rather than as the proprietor of a private press. He also took up embroidery and paper marbling, in which his masterful use of colour and strong design sense were apparent.

Bill was a member of the Vestry at St David’s Anglican Church in Red Hill for many years, serving for extensive periods as Warden and Treasurer, and embroidered many of the kneelers used there. His imprint as the Duyfken Press reflected both his keen interest in maritime history and his long and happy years living in Jansz Crescent, Griffith.

Bill’s son William describes him as a ‘flexible conservative’, something that is strongly apparent in words he wrote in 1987:

I believe strongly in the rights of the individual, to freedom of thought, to freedom of expression and to have freedom to be different from others. I believe in the essential goodness of humankind and I am loath to see evil or selfishness in anyone without strong reason. I am distressed when I encounter thoughtlessness, selfishness or lack of concern for the feelings and welfare of others. For me there are many paths to truth (or salvation) not all of which I personally may wish to follow. I have a deep suspicion of fundamentalists and others to whom ‘the truth’ or ‘the one true path’ has been revealed whether in matters of religion, management, finance, or personal relations. I believe the qualities of co-operation, compromise and compassion are fundamental to all facets of our personal and working life.

Bill Thorn epitomised qualities of tolerance, wisdom, compassion, generosity and gentleness. He died on 19 August 2014 and is survived by Angela and by his children William, Jane and Benjamin.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 10 October 2014

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael J. Richards, 'Thorn, William Darbyshire (Bill) (1932–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/thorn-william-darbyshire-bill-19120/text30693, accessed 17 November 2019.

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