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Sir Harold Leslie White (1905–1992)

by John Farquharson

Harold White was not only one of Australia's most outstanding librarians, but one of Canberra's oldest and most affectionately regarded citizens.

Sir Harold, who died on Monday, was for 23 years Australia's senior librarian and the man responsible for building up the rich collection now held by the National Library: an achievement that has been described as "unparalleled in the history of Australian librarianship".

Only after the scattered resources of the then infant National Library were brought together in 1968 did Australian librarians begin to realise the significance of the national asset he had created.

Throughout his long career, he remained a dynamic force in the world of Australian libraries, bringing all his ingrained pertinacity and political skill to bear in presiding over his two charges — the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library and the National Library. He kept a watchful eye over them during his long retirement, often writing articles in furtherance of the cause of both libraries and their activities.

He also kept a watchful eye on Canberra, was active in championing it and its development as the national capital as well as taking a keen interest in the recording of its history and that of the surrounding district. To him, Canberra was a "perfect combination of the bush and the city".

He used to say Canberra had all the advantages of the bush and the city without any of their disadvantages. Born in 1905 in Numurkah, in Victoria's Goulburn Valley, Sir Harold was recruited 18 years later as a cadet to the Commonwealth Library, beginning an association with that library which was to last for nearly 50 years.

He joined the library largely at the instigation of his headmaster at Wesley College, Mr L. A. Adamson, who was a personal friend of the first parliamentary librarian, Arthur Wadsworth. At that time the library was building up its staff in preparation for its move to Canberra.

Sir Harold came to Canberra in 1926, a year before the Parliament. In 1928, aged 24, he was appointed deputy Commonwealth librarian.

At this time, he was also active in the Canberra community promoting the arts and education, including Canberra University College, which became later the School of General Studies of the Australian National University. In 1947, on his appointment as Parliamentary Librarian, he was responsible for a wide range of activities including those now undertaken by the National Library, the Australian Archives, the National Film and Sound Archive and the ACT Library Service.

He fostered rapid development of the library's national activities, leading in 1960 to the establishment of the National Library of Australia and to his appointment as Australia's first National Librarian until his retirement in 1970. Sir Harold also remained Commonwealth Parliamentary Librarian until 1968, specifically to set up the Legislative Research Service for Parliamentarians.

When Sir Robert Menzies retired as Prime Minister in 1966, he said, apparently with a smile, that he "jolly well had to give Harold White the National Library to shut him up" because he was so vociferous in promoting it (Sir Harold was well known on the Canberra social circuit as a great talker, with a fund of stories, and ardent in pressing the cause of anything he believed in).

His vision for what libraries could contribute to the country culminated in the construction of a National Library building of outstanding scale located in the central Parliamentary Triangle. Probably his greatest coup in building up the National Library's collection was his acquisition in 1952, at cost of £12,500 ($25,000), of one of the 14 known originals of the Magna Carta, regarded then as the most important purchase made by an Australian library.

It made Canberra the only world capital outside London to have a copy of the historic charter. Since its acquisition it has been displayed almost continuously in Parliament House and Sir Harold ensured that it was given its present prominent place in the new Parliament House where it is accessible to the thousands of tourists who go through the building.

As it was acquired originally by the National Library, Sir Harold had it removed from Parliament House, when he was appointed National Librarian, to the new National Library building, along with various other items, when it was completed in 1968. However, Clyde Cameron, then a member of the Labor Opposition, objected to its removal and was instrumental in having it returned.

Among other valuable collections that Sir Harold acquired for the library were the Ferguson collection of Australiana and the David Nichol Smith collection of English literature. His contribution to librarianship went beyond persuading successive prime ministers (he knew them all from Scullin onward) to support the acquisition of an increasing number of fine national and international collections and an appropriate building to house them.

He played a key role also in the establishment of professional library associations in Australia and, in the process, made a major contribution to the development of libraries generally, including laying the basis for effective library co-operation throughout the country.

Along with the Tillyards and the Garrans, the Whites were not only among Canberra's longstanding residents but were among the first residents of Mugga Way, where Sir Harold took up a three-acre block.

He held a lifelong attachment to the land and once said, "if anything I've done gives any evidence of vision I would attribute it to the fact that I was born and brought up on the land."

Sir Harold was always supported greatly by his wife, Elizabeth, who died in 1988. Surviving family members are his two sons — David, Professor of Microbiology at Melbourne University, John, chief executive of the NSW Farmers' Association; and two daughters — Judith Robinson-Valery, director of research in the Department of Sciences of Man and Society, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris; and Katharine West, visiting scholar in communication and public policy, Canberra University.

The funeral service for Sir Harold will be held at St John's Church, Reid, next Monday at 10.45am.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'White, Sir Harold Leslie (1905–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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