Date of Passing: 12/02/2008
Harrison Bryan, who has died at the age of 84, was one of the most important and respected Australian librarians of the twentieth century. During a career which spanned thirty- five years he served successively as Librarian of the Universities of Queensland and Sydney, and Director-General of the National Library of Australia.
The son of Walter and Myee (nee Harrison) Bryan, he attended Brisbane Grammar School and the University of Queensland, from which he graduated Bachelor of Arts with honours in history in 1947 and Master of Arts in history in 1954. Early thoughts about a career in journalism or teaching had been redirected to librarianship at the suggestion of the Professor of History, and in February 1948 he married Florence Jolly and together they went to Sydney where he attended the library school at the Public (now State) Library of New South Wales.
After completing the one-year course he was urged to return to Brisbane to take over the running of the University of Queensland library as the Librarian had resigned. In 1949 he was appointed Assistant to the Librarian (a curious title, as there was no Librarian) and effectively ran the University library. He was appointed Librarian of the University in 1950. His appointment coincided with the move of the library to the university's new campus at St Lucia where he faced the problem of occupying and making serviceable the new library building, an imposing structure quite unsuitable for its intended purpose.
The University of Queensland library in those days was poorly regarded and financed. It boasted a collection of less than a hundred thousand volumes, there were only ten staff, and the budget for new acquisitions can only be described as puny. A more experienced librarian would have been daunted by the problems he faced, but Bryan approached them with youthful optimism and enthusiasm. A study tour to the UK and USA in 1957 provided ammunition with which to persuade the University to take its library more seriously. In his thirteen years at Queensland Bryan managed to increase the collection three-fold, and to revolutionise the service which the library gave to the University's students and staff.
In 1962, rather to his surprise, he was invited to accept the position of Librarian of the University of Sydney. He found the transition to Australia's largest university library both exacting and exciting. His arrival in Sydney in March 1963 coincided with the occupation of the award-winning new Fisher Library building, which represented a new era in accommodation and permitted the library staff to offer professional service of a standard hitherto unknown to the university community. It became the largest and busiest university library Australia had ever seen. The scale of the library's operations quickly led to pioneering work in the application of automation in Australian university libraries. Bryan never considered himself a book collector in the old tradition of librarianship, yet Sydney's collections, which totalled 775,000 volumes when he arrived in 1963, stood at 2.7 million volumes by the time he left in 1980.
The Council of the National Library of Australia invited him to assume the position of Director-General in 1980, the nation's premier library position. It would be fair to describe the National Library in 1980 as an institution facing many problems. The Federal Government's determination to reduce public sector expenditure had led to a gradual decline in the library's ability to maintain its collecting at an appropriate level and had led also to a series of reductions in staff numbers. After the controversial turbulence of his predecessor, the library's standing with the library community generally was low. For the next five years Bryan worked tirelessly to build the National Library's reputation, not only within Australia but internationally, with particular emphasis on leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. His crowning achievement as Director-General was the establishment and successful operation of the Australian Bibliographic Network, linking the country's major library collections. This was not his creation, but he made it a first priority for funding, and without his vigorous support, often in the face of criticism, it could not have prospered.
Overall, though, Bryan did not greatly enjoy his time at the National Library. He did not feel comfortable in the translation from the university scene, where collegiality is valued and arguments are based on logic and reason, to the politically-charged atmosphere of the senior levels of the Commonwealth Public Service. After five ‘less than blissfully happy’ years of service to the nation as Director-General Bryan retired in July 1985, aged 62. He left the National Library, as he had left the University libraries of Queensland and Sydney, very considerably stronger, more vigorous and more highly respected than at the beginning of his tenure.
Bryan's leadership of three important libraries naturally led to his playing a leadership role in his profession. He was twice President of the Library Association of Australia and served 25 years on its General Council. He served several terms as Chair of the Committee of Australian University Librarians, as he did of the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services. He served on UNESCO's Australian Advisory Committee on Libraries for a decade, was a Ford Foundation consultant on the development of libraries in Indonesia, and represented Australia on the Council of the Commonwealth Library Association. His contribution to the professional literature - more than 300 items - exceeds in number those of any other Australian librarian. Bryan was honoured for his achievements by his country, his profession, and the scholarly community. He was elected a Fellow of the Library Association of Australia, and received the Association's premier professional accolade, the HCL Anderson Award. In 1981 he was elected a Fellow of the Academy and delivered the annual Cunningham Lecture ‘Knowledge, Information and Libraries’. In 1984 he was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia. He received honorary doctorates from three universities, Monash, Queensland and Sydney.
As a university librarian he made sure that he was a visible member of the university's academic life, so as to promote the library's profile. At both Queensland and Sydney he was active in the academic staff association and the Staff Club. His outgoing and convivial nature, particularly over a beer or a good red wine, made him a popular and respected member of the academic community. To his senior staff Bryan was an excellent mentor, always willing to talk over problems and give sound advice, always supportive. In return he received their loyalty and respect. A man is fortunate indeed if his career is as immensely satisfying as Bryan's was, and the enjoyment of a fortunate life is enhanced if other interests are equally satisfying and enriching. Bryan's principal extra-curricular interests were gardening, oil painting and hand printing and he displayed enviable talents in all three.
A modest man, Bryan used to say that his success was due in large measure to good luck. Although he did have remarkably good luck, natural ability and hard work played an equally important part. He had the good sense to use his lucky opportunities wisely and to turn them to the advantage of libraries and their users.
He is survived by his wife, Florence, four children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Neil A Radford
University Librarian, University of Sydney, 1980-1996