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Walter Denis Richardson (1927–2011)

by Juliet Flesch

Denis Richardson, who played key roles in reforming and expanding the National Library of Australia and later, the library at Melbourne University, has died in hospital, aged 83.

He began his career at public libraries in England at Leeds and Bradfield (1951-54) and extended to Australian regional facilities at Claremont, Glenelg and Toowoomba, before he was appointed chief of the extensions to the NLA in 1963.

In that role he oversaw not only the growing Canberra public library service, but similar services in New Guinea, Nauru and the Northern Territory.

Born at Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, England, Richardson attended Sheffield University before beginning his career in librarianship, which eventually led him to Australia.

Following his work as chief extension librarian at the National Library of Australia, in 1970 he moved to the National Library proper, as deputy national librarian. This appointment came at a critical time as the foundation national librarian, Sir Harold White, had retired after more than two decades at the helm. His replacement, as director-general, Allan Fleming, while bringing enormous talent and flair to the position, was not a professionally qualified librarian and relied heavily on the expertise and experience of his deputy and senior staff.

During Richardson's time as deputy, the NLA, which had moved into its new building only two years earlier, expanded its staff, its embrace of new technologies and its collections.

In 1974, Richardson was invited to apply for the position of university librarian at Melbourne University, a library that was chronically underfunded, decentralised and cramped.

The system comprised more than a dozen branch libraries, not all of whose librarians reported to the university librarian. Many departments held large collections of material in varying states of insecurity, only some of which duplicated material held in the university library. Richardson embarked on a long and arduous effort to bring material bought with university funds under the control of the university library, reduce unnecessary duplication of materials, and have all the collections appropriately housed.

This required a total reorganisation of the staff structure and personnel, almost constant shuffling of the stock of books in an effort to make the best possible use of inadequate accommodation, and an enthusiastic embrace of new technology. It also required regional and national co-operation.

He was a moving force behind the establishment in 1978 of a co-operative umbrella body of academic libraries that resulted in the provision of shared storage, ownership of material, cataloguing and reciprocal borrowing rights. In 1980, Richardson was elected president of the Library Association of Australia. From 1986-89 he chaired the Committee of Australian University Librarians. He was also a state committee member and national president of the National Book Council, a non-profit organisation representing Australian book publishers, book sellers, libraries, authors and readers.

In 1989, Melbourne University library amalgamated with the Melbourne College of Advanced Education, a marriage that brought enormous problems as well as advantages. Twenty years on, the university is only just approaching a solution to the disposition of book stock and use of space provided in the Eastern Resource Centre. Richardson perhaps was unusual among Australian librarians in being equally fascinated by the old and new information technologies. Just as he embraced and promoted what was at the time cutting edge technology (CD-roms, manuscripts reproduced in microform), he authorised the acquisition of book materials as varied as the 1472 Schoeffer Bible or private libraries of books in Yiddish and Russian as well as other European languages. He greatly expanded the university's Chinese holdings and took a personal and informed interest in the development of the music library.

His appointment in 1978 of a senior collection development librarian was evidence of his determination to increase and improve the capacity of Melbourne University's library to support research in all areas. As a result, the library's first comprehensive collection development plan was prepared, and many scholars in all fields of academic endeavour owe Richardson a debt of gratitude for his steadfast determination to see that Australians were not substantially disadvantaged by their distance from the vast resources of European, Asian and North American libraries. He persuaded university authorities to vote the funds to achieve this. Richardson is survived by Barbara, his wife of 58 years, four children and six grandchildren.

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Citation details

Juliet Flesch, 'Richardson, Walter Denis (1927–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 August, 1927
Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England


1 May, 2011 (aged 83)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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