Michael Smethurst

Librarian responsible for state-of-the-art services at the new British Library
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The Independent Online

Michael Smethurst - first as a university librarian and then for 10 years in senior roles at the British Library - was in the front line during a period of massive change for libraries and librarianship.

John Michael Smethurst, librarian: born Manchester 25 April 1934; Librarian, Bede College, Durham University 1964-66; Librarian, Institute of Education, Newcastle upon Tyne 1966-69; Deputy Librarian, Glasgow University 1969-72; University Librarian, Aberdeen University 1972-86; Director-General, Humanities and Social Sciences, British Library 1986-91, Director-General, London Services 1991-95, Deputy Chief Executive 1995-96; CBE 1996; married 1960 Mary Clayworth (one son, one daughter); died Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire 18 October 2004.

Michael Smethurst - first as a university librarian and then for 10 years in senior roles at the British Library - was in the front line during a period of massive change for libraries and librarianship.

The rapid advances in information technology during the last quarter of the 20th century have resulted in changes as significant as those brought about in Europe by the spread of printing following the activities of Gutenberg and Caxton. The contrasting feature of the current information revolution, however, is that we are conscious of the revolution under way and hence keenly aware of the importance of the way we manage it.

Technological change has had a huge impact on libraries, and the changes have frequently been traumatic - in a manner that might be surprising to those unfamiliar with a profession often assumed to be for the placid and diffident. The profession and the institutions in its charge needed cool-headed, clearsighted and intelligent leadership and in Michael Smethurst those requirements were deployed to lasting effect.

John Michael Smethurst was born in Manchester in 1934, the son of Albert and Nelly Smethurst, and educated at William Hulme's Grammar School. He went up to Manchester University to read English, and maintained an interest in literature throughout his life. He was always well read and ready to debate the merits of the latest novel.

Entering librarianship in 1964, he was Librarian in Bede College of Durham University, and then at the Institute of Education in Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1969 he was appointed Deputy Librarian in Glasgow University and from 1972 to 1986 he was Librarian to Aberdeen University.

The period spent in university libraries gave Smethurst a firm conviction that libraries are to be managed first and foremost for their users, present and future, rather than for the convenience of some librarians. During his time in the north he developed a love for Scotland and especially Aberdeen. He and his wife regularly returned there long after their move to the south-east of England.

The most challenging period of Smethurst's professional life began with his appointment in 1986 to the post of Director-General, Humanities and Social Sciences, in the British Library. Until his retirement in 1996, by which time he had become Deputy Chief Executive, Smethurst filled a series of senior posts in the BL, all of them challenging to the utmost his professional skill and management capacity.

This was a time of stress and turmoil, only partly caused by the revolution in the ways the standard tasks of the librarian were carried out. True, cataloguing and classifying became very different kinds of operation dependent on the computer, which meant the retraining of staff and rethinking of methods of library operation. Similarly, the arrival of digital publishing and the internet meant fundamental examination of the nature of libraries.

But the central task facing Smethurst was the introduction of state-of-the-art library services within a context of rapidly advancing technological change to the as yet incomplete new British Library building at St Pancras - under construction by the Property Services Agency amid a barrage of press and parliamentary criticism, as well as carping from a group of users that could at times get close to Luddism.

Constant budget cuts were a complication and planning for the opening of the building, let alone the new services, meant interminable meetings with civil servants and negotiations with staff. The latter quite reasonably expected to be kept informed, at the very least, about progress, the state of which was at times not entirely clear to their managers due to the arms-length nature of the building project.

The timetable of the construction programme stretched to such a point that Smethurst had been retired two years by the time the building was officially opened in 1998. That the many users of the British Library's reading rooms now routinely express satisfaction with the quality of the service with which they are being provided, owes much to Smethurst's determined, skilful and meticulous planning.

Michael Smethurst played senior roles in virtually all the professional and organising bodies in librarianship, from Sconul (Standing Conference of National and University Libraries) to Liber, the association for European research libraries, and his expertise was in demand internationally. He was a member of the British Council's Libraries Advisory Committee and of the Unesco Commission for the Rehabilitation of the Russian State Library that sat from 1993 to 1998; Unesco also commissioned his assistance in the Moroccan Qarawiyyan Library project.

He sat on the board of the Research Libraries Group in the US, and following his retirement spent considerable time as an adviser on library, museum and archive issues to the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 1996 he was appointed CBE and awarded an honorary doctorate by Sheffield University.

Mike Smethurst was more than a solid professional. He had wit and a fund of anecdotes; he was a popular colleague who enlivened any formal meeting; he was a profoundly humane man. He enjoyed music, good wine, good company, and he was an inveterate traveller.

Brian Lang