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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Katherine Diana (Kate) Owen (1928–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Kate Owen, former chief librarian at The Sydney Morning Herald and then librarian with the ABC, lived and worked in a world when libraries were libraries; there were crowds of people needing information, newspaper cuttings were glued to filing sheets, cutting files rose to the roof and a repository of books stretched to the middle distance.

Never again in human history are there likely to be such library operations. Libraries are destined, more and more, to be confined to computers. But Owen, a tall, striking woman, had a quiet sense of humour. (This reporter said once to a smallish librarian: ''If you can't reach it, Kate will get it for you.'' To which Ms Owen said: ''Do you want to be donged on the head, Mr Brown?'') In the 1980s, when the Fairfax company started its move towards microfiche files – the beginning of a communications revolution that continues today – she was not happy.

Katherine Diana Owen was born in Adelaide on July 24, 1928, daughter of a stockbroker, Raymond Owen, and Rachel (nee Mercer), who was a radio book reviewer. She attended Woodlands School for Girls in Adelaide then joined the Adelaide News as a cadet journalist. In the mid-1950s, after Raymond died of tuberculosis, Owen and her mother moved to Sydney to be closer to Owen's sister Jane. Owen joined the library staff of the Herald and worked her way up to chief librarian.

At the end of her time with Fairfax, Owen suffered a bout of cancer. Recovering from that, she was informed of major rearrangements in the Fairfax library and it was suggested she move on. It put her in a quandary but a friend recommended her to Peter Manning, then a journalist with ABC Radio, who arranged for her to join the ABC library, which needed ''tender loving care''. She set up systems that continue to this day.

Set in her ways, disliking supermarkets, she insisted on direct relationships with everyone who served her. Steve Coventry, one of her nephews, said: ''In Mosman it was always Mr Ceeny the butcher, Mr Watling the motor mechanic, Mrs Mogaridge for antiques, Mrs Downs for material.''

Owen retired in 1990, sold her home in Mosman and moved to Bilgola Plateau. She worked in a voluntary capacity in the Mona Vale Library, doing cutting and filing for The Manly Daily, and at the Book Room for the University of NSW, which raised thousands of dollars for the university through the sale of second-hand books. She lavished love on her dogs, kept a wide circle of friends and attended theatre and film launches, at times unstinting in her condemnation of the performances. And she enjoyed her extended family.

In November 2009, Owen's cancer returned. While she was in hospital, nephew Steve asked her why she was carrying a book, Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse. She replied that it was ''bloody boring but I always wanted to read it, so I am''.

Kate Owen is survived by her sister, Jane Coventry, two nieces, two nephews, four great-nieces and four great-nephews. A brother, John, predeceased her in 1993.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Owen, Katherine Diana (Kate) (1928–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

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