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Wilma Radford (1912–2005)

by David J. Jones and Neil A. Radford

Miss Wilma Radford, one of Australia's leading librarians and library educators, died on 27 August 2005 after a short illness. She was 93.

She was born on 31 July 1912 in Warragul, Victoria, to Walter Arundel Radford and Emily Hood (nee Fenton). She received her secondary education at Sydney Girls' High School. Her father, a metallurgist, died in 1928 leaving the family with little support. Instead of attending university, as she had hoped, Wilma took the more practical alternative of a teaching qualification at Sydney Teachers' College, from which she graduated in 1931. However, school teaching did not appeal to her. She had considered a career in librarianship when still at school and in 1932 obtained her first position at the Public Library of New South Wales (now the State Library), where she would remain for most of the next thirty years. She was interviewed by W. H. Ifould, the Principal librarian at the time, a shrewd selector. In those Depression years there was no shortage of young women seeking employment at the Library and he could afford to be choosy. He looked for candidates who were in the top twelve of the Leaving Certificate list and who were 'suitable in address, physique and health, as well as in scholarship'. He was also seeking keen and energetic people and wanted to know about their outside interests. At her interview Wilma declared her fondness for gardening, to which Ifould, a renowned gardener, retorted: 'Well you can't garden at night'. He may have thought her reply sycophantic, but he recognised her sterling qualities and the Public Library had found one of its star performers.

As was then the norm, Wilma's progress through the ranks was slow but varied. The Public Library at that time also staffed libraries in New South Wales government departments, technical colleges and the Sydney Teachers' College. She worked in some of these outposts, as well as in the General Reference Department (now the State Reference Library) and the Cataloguing Department. In 1937 she was at Sydney Technical College when the Australian Institute of Librarians was founded in Canberra, and she was among its Foundation Members. She was then still a library assistant on probation, only becoming a senior library assistant in 1944. By then she had begun one of the most stimulating phases of her career as a lecturer in the Library School which had been established at the Public Library in 1939. In this role she worked closely with John Metcalfe, who had succeeded Ifould as principal librarian in 1942. Their collaboration, particularly in education for librarianship and the professional association, would continue for many decades.

Whilst lecturing at the Library School she was also studying part-time for her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney and graduated in 1947. In that year she was recommended for Carnegie Corporation assistance to undertake library studies in the United States. She was granted leave to attend the Columbia University School of Library Service, graduating Bachelor of Science in 1948. She was probably the first Australian to receive a university degree in librarianship. Returning home via Europe, she attended the UNESCO/IFLA International Summer School for Librarians in London, subsequently sharing her observations on libraries and library education in the UK and USA with her colleagues. Not long after her return she was appointed technical officer of the Library Board of New South Wales, and from 1949 to 1954 she played a leading part in the rapid development of public library services established under the Library Act.

During this time she remained involved and interested in library education, continuing to lecture at the Library School and to be an active member of the Library Association of Australia (LAA) Board of Examination, Certification and Registration of Librarians. At the 1951 LAA Conference she and Elizabeth Hall of the National Library presented a paper on library staffing and education which Metcalfe described as 'the best professional paper so far read to this Association'. He was well qualified to judge, having heard and read all of the papers since 1937.

In 1954 she was appointed reference librarian, in charge of the General Reference Department. This was a time when resources were stretched to the limit: university students, their own libraries not yet able to cope with post-war numbers, flooded into the Public Library. There were often too few seats to go around and students sat on the stairs of the galleries or on the floor. Telephone enquiries grew exponentially, as did detailed research enquiries from business and industry. To survive, let alone flourish, the reference staff needed to be well organised, well trained and committed to their work. In Wilma Radford they had a perfect role model, tutor and guide.

By about 1960 she found herself bumping against what today is called the glass ceiling. It was traditional in the public service that the most senior positions were always filled by men, and when, in 1962, she was offered the position of senior lecturer in the new School of Librarianship at the University of New South Wales, she accepted and began a new career as an academic. The Trustees of the Public Library presented her with an address under seal — an honour usually reserved for very distinguished staff members upon retirement. Her loss was keenly felt, but the Trustees were 'reconciled to the loss of her services to them by the knowledge that her ability and experience will now be devoted to the professional training of librarians for the benefit of library services as a whole, as well as for their own institution'.

As senior lecturer at the School of Librarianship she was working once again with John Metcalfe, its foundation director. In what spare time she had she was also researching and writing her thesis on Charles Badham and his role in New South Wales education, and in 1969 was awarded the Master of Education degree by the University of Sydney.

In 1968, after the vacancy had been widely advertised in Australia and overseas, she succeeded Metcalfe as head of school and was appointed Professor of Librarianship — this was the first chair of librarianship in Australia. Her appointment was widely welcomed. Colleagues wrote of her 'sense of commitment to her profession, her concern for standards of excellence and a lively interest in people, particularly young people entering librarianship', and of her 'intelligent conservatism' combined with a receptiveness to new ideas. They also referred to her very sound common sense, a quality which she valued in others. Good old-fashioned nous — a favourite word — entered into more than one discussion of librarianly qualities. She lived up to everyone's expectations, holding her new position with distinction and retiring in 1973. In the words of a later citation, she had 'consolidated the position of the school in the University and the community and opened new horizons for both staff and students'.

Her contribution to the wider profession was also being recognised. She had been appointed a Foundation Fellow of the Library Association of Australia in 1963 and in 1976 she became the second recipient of the HCL Anderson Award, the Association's highest award to a library professional, a recognition of her long and distinguished service. She had been active in one role or another in her professional association almost continuously since 1937, as a council member, committee member, Board of Examiners secretary, member, deputy chairman and in due course chairman, general secretary and vice-president.

In retirement she remained an active and committed member, contributing chapters to professional publications, papers to conferences, particularly on Australian library history, and occasional letters to the editor of the Australian Library Journal. She was present at Association celebrations — such as the 50th anniversary in 1987 — and when critical issues were being discussed. In 1999 she attended the meeting at which formal approval was given for the Association to move to an incorporated body. The then President was somewhat astonished to be talking with someone who by then had been a member for 62 years.

She travelled frequently in retirement, mostly to England and Europe, and a favourite pastime was sitting in a deck chair in London's Green Park, writing postcards and watching people. She had a respect for the eccentric, perhaps recognising an eccentric streak in herself. Once, in her eighties, while resting in the square of a village in France, she found herself the centre of interest from a Japanese tour group who were delighted to have an opportunity to photograph an old French peasant woman. She saw no reason to correct their misapprehension and obligingly smiled for their cameras.

If gardening was an early interest it did not last. Appropriately for a librarian she was interested in the act of reading and for decades she collected 'reading figures' — representations in china or pottery, or reproductions of art works, of people reading. Holding a book but not looking at it was not good enough — the subject had to be engaging with the book or paper. She had no figurines of people reading computer screens or even microfilm. Print on paper was best.

This is but a brief insight into a truly extraordinary life which spanned the development of the profession of librarianship in Australia. She played a decisive role in determining its course through her work for the professional association and through her education of hundreds of librarians. Many will view her principal legacy to the profession as the generations of librarians who were taught by her at the Public Library of New South Wales and at the University of New South Wales, or who benefited from her work on the Board of Examiners, and who absorbed some of her passion and philosophy. Some will explore how she succeeded as a female professor of a fledgling profession in a decidedly male bastion. Others will examine her practical contribution to professional education. Former colleagues may recall what it was like to work with her at the Public Library and the University of New South Wales. They will also recognise her generosity to institutions and causes, including the John Metcalfe Memorial Fund at the University of New South Wales.

Family, friends and colleagues will relate how they benefited from those most valued commodities — her time and her interest in their work or welfare. Others, like both of the authors, will trace the origins of their own growing commitment to librarianship to an inspiring Radford lecture or tutorial. Wilma Radford is survived by a sister and by nieces and nephews and their families. Her friends and colleagues were like family, too, and we all join in mourning the passing of this great Australian and celebrating her contribution to our own lives.

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Citation details

David J. Jones and Neil A. Radford, 'Radford, Wilma (1912–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 April 2024.

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