Malcolm Campbell: Pioneer in the provision of business information

His accession to president of the Staff Association was marked by a seven-gun salute in Guildhall Yard

At the end of the 1960s the Corporation of London decided that the Commercial Reference Room at Guildhall Library, which had very well served the needs of businesses in the City since 1873, should be reborn to reflect new resources and changing demands; and so in January 1970 the City Business Library was opened and Malcolm Campbell became the first City Business Librarian.

The idea had been conceived by Campbell's predecessor Ian Anderson, who subsequently moved on to edit reference titles published by his predecessor George Henderson, who had been responsible for relaunching the Commercial Reference Room after the Second World War. Campbell faced a similar task, but with considerably more available resources, and with a new building which was worlds away from the cathedral-like Guildhall Library in 1970.

With typical humour, Campbell recalled that “on arrival at the Guildhall Library to plan the new service I found that I had not been allocated anywhere to sit. After a few days spent in the minuscule staff room I brought into play skills learnt in the army and commandeered an enclosure known as the binding room, though no binding ever went on there. With the addition of a chair, a table and a cardboard Teacher's Whisky box serving as a filing cabinet, this remained my base for the next 18 months.”

Although the City of London was not alone in the provision of business information as part of its public library service (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham being only five of several other notable examples), the City Business Library heralded a new era because it was possible to take into account new developments and demands and incorporate them into a purpose-built setting, with facilities for taking on board further developments in the 1970s.

This created a demand which enabled publishers and providers of business information – including freelance entrepreneurs – to find a market that had barely existed. It also set a new standard that other library authorities sought to emulate, so that it perhaps became too easy to take for granted the services pioneered and maintained by the City Business Library – and easy to forget that Malcolm Campbell was responsible for them.

Campbell shared his experiences with the information profession at large through the writing or editing of books and articles – his Business Information Services and Manual of Business Library Practice were the first books on this subject for 20 years – through talks and lectures, and through membership of committees and other bodies connected with Aslib and the then Library Association.

In addition, at the Corporation of London he held office for many years in the Staff Association, the in-house white-collar trade union where, as he wrote, the staff and the Corporation differed on many occasions, but resolution was always achieved in a civilised fashion and without recourse to industrial action. Eighteen years after joining the Corporation he was installed as president at a ceremony in Guildhall arranged by an over-imaginative general secretary, and found himself flanked by pipers of the Scots Guards, accompanied by the band of the Welsh Guards, a choir from the City of London School, “and a seven-gun salute which apparently convinced a number of passers-by that World War III had broken out.”

Malcolm Campbell was born in Portsmouth, educated at Owen's School, Islington, and first entered librarianship at the old Holborn Library in 1946, where he met his future wife, Margaret. In 1959 he was appointed librarian of the British Employers' Confederation and when in 1965 this body was incorporated into the newly-formed Confederation of British Industry he became librarian of the CBI until 1968, when he moved to the City. He retired in 1989, receiving an MBE in the 1990 New Year's Honours List and an honorary degree of Master of Arts from the City University.

Characteristic of all his activities was a self-deprecating humour and a very dry wit – often directed against some of the more pretentious and nonsensical aspects of the library profession (how he would have hated the managerialism rife in the 1990s) – and a modesty that refused loudly to proclaim his achievements. Service to the public (instilled from the age of 16 at Holborn Public Library) remained the raison d'être of all he did. He took a refreshingly sane view of the world, refusing to fall prey to fashionable theories, or the pronouncements of those whose practical experience was negligible or non-existent.

Exceptionally public-spirited, outside librarianship he gave much time and energy to the National Trust, the Ramblers' Association, Oxfam, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and as honorary secretary to the Gatliff Trust. He is survived by his wife Margaret and his son Colin, whose career as a professional classical singer was a source of enormous pride and satisfaction.

Malcolm James Campbell, business librarian: born Portsmouth 11 April 1930; library assistant, Holborn Public Library 1946-59, Librarian, British Employers' Confederation 1959-65, Confederation of British Industry 1965-68, City Business Library 1968-89; MBE 1990; married 1957 Margaret Emily Heather (one son, and one daughter deceased); died London 15 March 2012.

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