Obituary: Donald Urquhart

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Donald John Urquhart, librarian: born Whitley Bay 27 November 1909; librarian, Science Museum Library 1938-39, 1945-48, DSIR Headquarters 1948-61; Director, National Lending Library for Science and Technology 1961-73; CBE 1970; Director General, B ritishLibrary Lending Services 1973-74; married 1939 Beatrice Parker (two sons); died Leeds 2 December 1994.

Donald Urquhart was one of the greatest innovators, practitioners, thinkers and personalities the library profession has ever had. His impact and reputation were world-wide. Yet he never really thought of himself as a librarian at all, and took no littledelight in goading the library profession throughout his life.

After taking a BSc and PhD at Sheffield University and a three-year spell (1934-37) in the Research Department of the English Steel Corporation, he joined the Science Museum Library in 1938 and again after the Second World War (which he spent in the Admiralty and the Ministry of Supply). In 1948 he went to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research where the planning and groundwork took place for his great achievement. This was to establish the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLLST), which became, and is still, the world's greatest document supply centre.

Between the two world wars, and for some years after, libraries lent material between themselves to satisfy those demands of users when the pace of research was somewhat leisurely and the volume of publications was not enormous. In the post-war period t

h e world of knowledge changed radically; industry, and especially academe, grew at an increasing rate, the output of publications exploded, and even the best-funded libraries could not hope to keep up. Urquhart was not the only one to see the problem comi ng, but he was the man who did something about it. What he did was to create almost from scratch a collection of scientific journals, reports and books designed specifically to meet demand from industry, academe and elsewhere.

This was no easy task. He had to persuade the authorities that such a collection was needed and that the necessary expenditure was justified. He broke numerous library rules and principles in doing so. Classification was not needed at all, arrangement

of books and journals by title made it possible to bypass catalogues for most requests - everything was designed not according to traditional rules but to serve the purpose as efficiently as possible. Systems had to be very simple and robust to cope withwhat he foresaw would be a great volume of demand. He also ignored conventional wisdom in not confining the collection to journals that other libraries did not possess, but buying, in multiple copies if necessary, journals that were commonly owned, for the simple reason that these were the most needed. Most of the library world told him he was wrong; many argued that the cost of setting up the collection was unjustified.

Once the service had started at Boston Spa, near Wetherby, Yorkshire, in 1961, experience proved him even more right than he could have imagined. Demand rose from 217,000 in the first full year of operations to 1,832,000 (including 160,000 from abroad) in his last year, 1973-74. Because of the excellence of the service, foreign libraries had started to use it; libraries in Vancouver and Sydney found it could prove a faster and more reliable supply than their own systems. The NLLST became a mecca for librarians all over the world. It is probably true to say that no other library in the 20th century has had so much written about it.

Librarians soon revised their opinions and honoured Urquhart by making him President of the Library Association in 1972. The state had already honoured him by appointing him CBE in 1970. He was awarded honorary degrees of DSc by Heriot-Watt, Sheffield a

n d Salford universities in 1974.

Dr Urquhart (few knew him as Donald) had some things in his favour. His base in DSIR made money much easier to obtain than if he had been in most other government departments. The launch of Sputnik I in 1957 gave a spur to technological research and hence to a greater recognition of the need for information. The Advisory Council on Scientific Policy was supportive. He was able to take over most of the collections of the Science Museum Library to form the basic collection. But without his single-mindedness and determination it is almost certain that little would have happened. He obeyed scrupulously the good Civil Service rule that it is better to seek forgiveness than permission. He was determined to see his project through and he did.

In his final year, the NLLST came into the new British Library as the Lending Division, in the process incorporating the National Central Library in London, its catalogues and its collections; more importantly this extended the coverage to all subjects. The UK now had a comprehensive document supply service not only without parallel but beyond comparison. The practical impact on British libraries and users was profound; they had the best back-up system in the world. Much in the world has changed in the last 20 years. Urquhart himself always said the library would need to be rethought from time to time. Electronic technology has brought about many changes in what is now the British Library Document Supply Centre, but the basic systems and thinking are much the same and demand has continued to rise.

Although the NLLST as a document supply service is Urquhart's lasting achivement, he promoted the use of information in other ways. He made the NLLST the UK centre for the first large-scale scientific bibliographic database, Medlars; initiated a translation service, especially from Russian; and pioneered courses in the use of scientific literature for both libraries and researchers. He delivered and wrote numerous papers and articles, almost all thought-provoking, both in the sense of irritating librarians and of stimulating thought. The fact that he was mostly right did no more to endear him, but he was listened to. His no-nonsense approach and his desire to bring libraries back to first principles - efficiency in the service of the customer - have all had a substantial influence on the way many librarians think and act; these included myself while I was still a university librarian and before I became his successor in the British Library.

Urquhart wrote two books, which he published himself: The Principles of Librarianship (1981), which is one-quarter about principles and three-quarters about his application of them; and Mr Boston Spa (1990), in which he records the making of the NLLST.

Donald Urquhart was not an easy man to deal with, especially for those who were on shaky ground (it tended to become shakier under his onslaughts) or did not hold their own. He found it hard to understand why someone whose views he derided should be offended, angry, or hurt. His authoritarian style of management would be unacceptable today, but he commanded tremendous respect among his staff and defended them against all criticism. He was also not easy to get to know personally.

But these characteristics were very much part of the man; if he had been a less tough and single-minded person, we should never have had the NLLST, and British libraries and librarianship would have been different and poorer.