State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 65 Autumn 2000

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Library Profile
Ernest Roland Pitt

Ernest Roland Pitt (1877-1957) was Chief Librarian of the Public Library of Victoria between 1931–1943, having already served on the staff in various capacities for over 30 years. ‘Methodical’ and ‘balanced’ are words often applied to Pitt; he combined a stern sense of propriety with a genuine interest in his staff and a desire to better the lot of public servants in general. Undoubtedly he needed all his diplomatic skills for the trials he faced during his tenure as Chief Librarian.
The first half of the twentieth century saw more rapid changes on more fronts than at perhaps any other time in history. As a librarian, Pitt felt the impact of many of these changes, probably more than any other employee in the history of the Public Library. Technological advances, changes in reading habits, the Depression, and two World Wars all tested Pitt. Despite being hampered by factors beyond his control, Pitt coped remarkably well. For reasons that will become apparent, his ideas better suited the post-World War Two period than the 1930s. Certainly Pitt found himself in charge of an increasingly complex organisation.
Born in Strathlodden near Guildford in Victoria on 16 October 1877, Ernest Pitt was the eighth child of schoolteacher parents. His siblings included Henry Arthur Pitt, who rose to become the permanent head of the Victorian Treasury, and is also remembered as the father of historian Kathleen Fitzpatrick. The family being in financial difficulty after the death of their father in 1888, Henry gave up his chance of studying law, and provided the support that enabled two younger brothers, identical twins Ernest and Herbert, to attend St Patrick's College in Melbourne and then enrol to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. The death of Herbert (who had contracted tuberculosis while working in hospitals) after three years of study was such a blow to Ernest that he gave up medicine and left the University. He returned some years later to study Arts and graduated B.A. in 1910.
In 1900 he joined the staff of the Melbourne Public Library, then under the leadership of Edmund La Touche Armstrong, who, like Pitt, served on the staff for over 40 years. Here he found himself working with staff who went back to the days of Barry and had been associated with Sheffield, Bride, and Dowden.
Pitt's initial specialty was cataloguing — he eventually became Chief Cataloguer — and he developed a particular interest in periodical cataloguing, which led to his preparing A Catalogue of Current Periodicals received at the Public Library of Victoria (1905). In 1923 he took charge of the Lending Library, a position he held until 1926. He then transferred to the Reference Library as Principal Reference Librarian. The invaluable combination of his cataloguing and reference skills aroused admiration in
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the library community, leading Pitt to undertakings that took him beyond the sphere of the Public Library.
The ventures that extended Pitt's horizons included a six-month secondment to the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Technology in 1928, to assist in setting up their library. This in turn led to the compiling of the Catalogue of Scientific and Technical Periodicals in Australian Libraries, a major work eventually published in 1930. Pitt edited the second edition (published 1951) which became Scientific Serials in Australian Libraries, during his retirement. It also led to the Victorian secretaryship for the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science between 1922–51. An interest in the working conditions of Public Servants saw him serve as President of the Australian Public Service Federation 1925–26, and on the committee of the Superannuation Board 1929–1935.
During this same period Pitt played a leading role in the library profession, serving on various library boards, and becoming a Fellow of the Library Association (United Kingdom) in 1939. He was keen to establish professional training for librarians and to improve access to libraries for all sections of the community. He recognised early that training needed to be flexible, as the needs of the community — government, business, public — varied enormously, and librarians needed to be able to draw on different skills. His next project was to provide him with ample scope to expand upon these themes. Apart from his role at the Public Library, Pitt is best remembered as one of the authors (Ralph Munn, Director of the Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, was the other) of Australian Libraries, commonly known as the Munn-Pitt Report and published in 1935. He received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to visit overseas libraries and compile the questionnaire, which formed a staple part of the research for the report. Pitt, who was then Chief Librarian, received leave of absence on full pay for six months in order to travel. The eventual report sparked many debates in the library and the library-conscious community, one consequence of which was more work for Pitt, making it even more difficult for him to spend the necessary time on the affairs of Public Library.
Within the Public Library, Pitt was an able manager, interested in and knowledgeable about its many facets as a result of his having worked his way up in
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the institution. He was burdened, to some extent, by the added responsibility of acting as Secretary to the Trustees of the (then) combined Public Library, Museum, and National Gallery of Victoria. Although it gave him regular access to the Trustees, this responsibility took Pitt away from the cataloguing and reference functions, which had attracted him to the profession in the first place. The Depression and then World War Two also created problems for the Library. The latter robbed the Library of some of its predominantly male staff who enlisted, and Pitt himself was extended for six months beyond retirement age to help cover the deficit.
The Depression meant cutbacks to staff and book budgets, posing enormous strains, as the demands on the service had never been greater. In 1932–33 for example, the Library cancelled some 98 subscriptions to journals, mostly of a scientific and medical nature. This must have been a painful decision for Pitt, given his interest in the field. At the same time, the government also abolished the position of Senior Assistant Librarian, resulting in further savings, but adding to the pressures on remaining staff, including the Chief Librarian. During this period the Domed Reading Room was regularly full. The Library has been described as a friend to those in need it overflowed with the unemployed, many hoping to better themselves, others simply seeking shelter.
Pitt, who succeeded R.D. Boys in 1931, recognised the important role the Library played in this period and saw it as not only a challenge, but an opportunity to raise the profile of the institution. A study of the Argus index for the 1930s shows that the Public Library regularly appeared in the news. Always interested in the cultural opportunities the Library afforded the community, Pitt encouraged such activities, thus demonstrating that the Library has long had a vital, if small-scale series of public programs. For example, in 1936 Percival Serle was invited to deliver six lectures (an offer repeated in 1938 although he was asked to deliver only four that year), Pitt regretting the fact that ‘the funds available will not permit of more lectures and larger fees’. Serle received the sum of £2.2.0 per lecture. Pitt was alert to the benefits to be gained from working on joint projects with other institutions and societies. For example, in 1935 and 1936 the Trustees worked with the Historical Society of Victoria on the Library's contribution to the Centenary celebrations. Novelist and journalist J.A. Allan was yet another invited to lecture and the ‘satisfactory’ attendances at these lectures continued to encourage Pitt.
Exhibitions have always played an important part in the Library's history, especially in the period leading up to the 1934 Victorian Centenary. In late 1931, shortly after his appointment, the Library held a well regarded exhibition of first editions of Kipling. Pitt actively canvassed people to lend material for such events. Doubtless he had an eye to eventually acquiring these items for the collection. Then, as now, the Library relied heavily upon the generosity of donors, including the Felton Bequest, and the Argus provided good coverage of notable gifts received. The Library had to compete with the Museum and the National Gallery for attention. As Secretary Pitt saw the Trustees regularly and always made his wishes known, constantly requesting new books as well as suggesting many other innovative ideas. These
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included establishing a picture collection, a business reference library and a Friends group — all of which have come to pass. Many of his ideas could not be carried out at the time because of the restraints dictated by the Depression and the War. Clearly they were ahead of their time, and Pitt might have been able to initiate them had he been active during the post-war boom a decade later.
The existing photographs of Pitt possibly hint at a touch of the ascetic, yet he earned the respect and affection of his elders, peers, and juniors. He maintained an interest in juniors entering the profession and was ever ready with advice. Underneath the formality and reticence of the trained cataloguer and the stickler for procedure was a vein of warmth and wit. During his association with the National Gallery, Daryl Lindsay had much to do with Pitt and in later years wrote of ‘dear old Ernest’ with affection, praising Pitt's endeavours to keep him on the bureaucratic straight and narrow. Even as a junior and middle manager, Pitt had many contacts, both within and without the profession, more than some of his superiors.
Ernest Pitt and his brother Henry married sisters, daughters of South Melbourne real estate agent J.R. Buxton. From Ernest's marriage with Kathleen Buxton in 1907 came a daughter and two sons, the younger of whom fulfilled his father's original ambition of being a doctor. Outside his professional duties and his family Ernest had a range of interests and activities, which he was able to maintain until late in his life: a keen tennis player, he became a member of the Council of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria; he was also an avid bridge player; and his political inclination is indicated by his membership of the Henry George League. He died on 28 June 1957 in a private hospital in Camberwell. The Age and the Sun carried small obituaries, but it was left to the Australian Library Journal to present a more generous tribute:
Mr. Pitt was a link with the librarians of other times. He mixed in the circle of Armstrong, Boys, Brazier and Morris Miller, Ifould and Purnell, Battye and Collier. If these were giants in their day — as they seemed to the younger amongst us — Pitt was of no less stature. His contribution to twentieth-century librarianship in this country was indeed a worthy one.
Sandra Burt
Sandra Burt, assistant editor of The La Trobe Journal since 1998, is a librarian in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.
[The photograph of Pitt is from the La Trobe Picture Collection, H36792.]
Grateful acknowledgement is made to copyright holders for permission to reproduce items from the Picture Collection: Ms Kaz Cooke; Ms Judy Horacek; Ms Jane Sullivan and Ms Diane Romney; Mr Vane Lindesay.
Photography of items from the collections in the State Library of Victoria is by Adrian Flint.