Obituary: D. T. Richnell

Donovan Thomas Richnell, librarian: born London 3 August 1911; Sub-Librarian, Royal Society of Medicine 1946-49; Deputy Librarian, London University Library 1949-60, Director and Goldsmiths' Librarian 1967-74; Librarian, Reading University Library 1960-67; CBE 1973; Director General, British Library Reference Division 1974-79; married Norma Hilton (one son, one daughter); died London 18 February 1994.

DONOVAN THOMAS Richnell will be chiefly remembered as the first Director-General of the British Library Reference Division. This body was set up, with its sister Lending Division, under the 1971 British Library Act, following the 1969 Report of the National Libraries Committee chaired by FS (now Lord) Dainton, itself the product of the Government's calamitous decision in October 1967 to abandon the plan to build a new library extension for the British Museum.

It was thus pre-determined that Richnell's task would not be an easy one; the separation of the library departments from those of Antiquities (made worse by retention, against the Dainton Committee's recommendation, of the Department of Prints and Drawings in the museum) was complicated by the library's remaining on the Bloomsbury site, while retaining responsibility for the former Patent Office Library, reconstituted in 1960 as the National Reference Library of Science and Invention (later the Science Reference Library).

Remembering the acronyms for these organisations was hard enough; to bring them together, to assuage the wounds caused by neglect and procrastination, followed by severe administrative surgery, was far harder. This was what Richnell set out to do, at an age when most men would have been thinking of retirement. It was a triumph that he achieved so much in five years, a period that his colleagues would have happily wished to be

extended.

Richnell was a London man. He was born in 1911 in Bedford Park, still new from Norman Shaw's plan but already leafy, in one of two adjacent houses belonging to his father, Thomas Hodgson Richnell.

He went to St Paul's School, and thence to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he began reading classics but ended by taking his BA in English. After graduating, he entered the School of Library Studies at University College London, of which he later became a Fellow. He spent the next year as Library Assistant at the Royal Society of Medicine, before moving in 1935 to the National Library of Scotland as Assistant Librarian. His service there, which nominally extended to 1946, was cut short by the Second World War. From 1939 to 1940 he was Secretary to the Regional Commander for Civil Defence in Scotland, but after Pearl Harbor he was given a crash course in Japanese and posted to the Far East in the Royal Navy.

Once there, however, he was detached for liaison service with the US Army Tenth Corps in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was inclined to make light of his war experiences (and the award of the US Bronze Star). He ended the war as a Lieutenant (RNVR) spending a longish time in Japan.

He returned, not to Edinburgh, but to the Royal Society of Medicine again. There he stayed for three years, before moving to London University Library, as Deputy Librarian. Here he steadily built up his reputation as a humane librarian and a sound administrator. He became a member of the council of Aslib in 1951, serving as secretary from 1957 to 1963 and again from 1973 to 1975. He also served on the Council of the Library Association, and was its president in 1970.

In 1960 Richnell left London to become University Librarian at Reading, then fast expanding. He dealt with the problems that this involved, and was particularly proud of the Publishers' Archive, documents which laid the foundation for the history of the book trade set up at the library. Members of the Standing Council of National and University Libraries (of which he was chairman in 1973-75) still recall the generous reception that he and his wife gave them in his home at Reading.

But he did not leave London for long. In 1967 he returned to the university as Director of the library and Goldsmiths' Librarian. He also returned to Bedford Park, to the house next to the one in which he had been born. From this familiar base he extended his range, trying to bring a sense of common purpose to the university's many diverse libraries. With Professor RA Humphreys he produced the London University Libraries Report, which led to the formation of the Library Resources Co-ordinating Committee. He was a natural choice as a member of the National Central Library Executive Committee in 1964, and then, in 1971, of the British Library Organising Committee, from which in 1973 he emerged as

Director-General of the newly formed Reference Division.

One of his colleagues on that committee, Harry Hookway, became Chief Executive of the library itself, and the two became firm allies, with Lord Eccles, the library's godfather, as Chairman. These were halcyon years; if the decisions that brought the British Library into being had been hard, at least they had been taken. Richnell encouraged his new colleagues to experiment; he warmly supported any new initiative, notably in the urgent cause of conservation. Without forcing change, he tried, as he had at London University, to bring his colleagues, however different their backgrounds, closer together. His warm personality and cheerful conversation dug out the most entrenched and, if he sometimes seemed to talk a little too much, it was often skilfully to evade a more damaging confrontation.

He made the old Principal Keeper's room of the British Museum, a rather austere place, into something almost cosy. He would brew the tea himself, insisting that the water must be boiling. Almost any problem became a little easier after a chat and a cup of tea. And the achievements were astonishing: the inception of an automated catalogue, the establishment of the Eighteenth Century Short-Title Catalogue under Dr RC Alston, the rescue of the major part of the library of John Evelyn, sadly dispersed in 1977 - all these came almost incidentally with the main task of welding his diverse organisation together.

It was done, like everything else Don Richnell did, without affectation or self-importance. His unchanging figure, a little thinner on top, the engaging grin never far away, was always welcome whenever he returned to his old haunts. He enjoyed his retirement, so well earned, and his life which ended, as it had begun, in Bedford Park.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game