No Stranger to Controversy: The Australian Library Journal and Its Editors

By Levett, John | The Australian Library Journal, November 2007 | Go to article overview
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No Stranger to Controversy: The Australian Library Journal and Its Editors


Levett, John, The Australian Library Journal


The author, who edited The Australian library journal for twenty-five years until 2006, reflects on some of the divisive issues which have appeared in the journal since its first publication in 1951. He also identifies reasons, logistical as well as legal, why some controversies were never aired in the publication, and comments approvingly on the freedom given to, but not always exercised by, successive editors: John Metcalfe, Harrison Bryan, Jean Whyte, Ronald McGreal, Laurie Brown, C. V. Datar, Adrian Read, Michael Talbot, John Levett himself and Ian McCallum. This paper is adapted from a dinner address presented for John by Dr Neil Radford at the Forum on Australian Library History, State Library of New South Wales, 28 September 2007.

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'Controversy' is an interesting word, less current now than it used to be, perhaps, judging by the shortness of its Wikipedia entry. As the more tangible Shorter Oxford has it: a 'dispute, especially when carried on in writing'. A dispute is 'an argumentative contention, a controversy, a difference of opinion, a heated contention, a quarrel, a logical argument'. To my mind a controversy is a phenomenon of some dimension, a step above an argument or a quarrel. By definition it is of some duration, and draws into itself a widening circle of those willing and able to engage on one side or the other.

A controversy turns on a question of some weight which needs resolution, or at least an airing. With one of the parties to the controversy, and often with both, there is the belief that 'right' is on their side, and there is often a moral or even an altruistic impulsion at work. There are certainly strongly held views, robustly expressed, on both sides. Which brings me to John Metcalfe.

In the context of Australian librarianship sixty, fifty, forty and even thirty years ago, 'robustly expressed views' could have been synonymous with John Metcalfe, senior librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales, then university librarian at the University of New South Wales and director of its School of Librarianship--followed by active and argumentative retirement. One would imagine, therefore, that where controversy lurked, there lurked Metcalfe, and he had the perfect instrument at his disposal: The Australian library journal.

The Journal came into existence in 1951, early in the life of the Library Association of Australia (LAA), the newly re-constituted professional association which had been founded as the Australian Institute of Librarians in 1937. The Journal's first de facto editor, progenitor and promoter was the man of that moment, John Wallace Metcalfe. For several issues he was also the main writer. On the Journal's pages he made no particular claims for its scope, its tone or its attitude. If he saw it as a vehicle for controversy, he did not say so.

But he did clear the ground for his successors when he said he was not a 'scissors and paste' editor. He would publish or reject or solicit copy on the basis of his own judgement. A journal could not be successfully edited by a committee. And if anybody wanted to go down that road, it would have to be with someone else as editor. (1)

Sadly, not all his successors took up the challenge with the same gusto: some were 'strangers to controversy'. But many of them did. And one of the glories of the Association has been the freedom accorded to those who claimed it and who exercised it with discretion and judgement--including the airing of controversies.

It did not take Metcalfe long to nail his colours to the masthead. In the third issue in 1951 there is his unsigned editorial, directly criticising the Association and one of its cherished prerogatives: the examination and assessment of candidates for entry to the profession. The editorial was headed 'Dark Satanic Mills; or, The Association's Examination System'. It railed against 'the system': 'Is it a racket?' 'Teaching or coaching?

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