Obituary: D. T. Richnell
Tuesday 22 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
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.
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