Obituary : Roy Smith

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The Independent Online
Roy Smith was a dynamic, innovative and visionary contributor to the worlds of librarianship and public service - one of the most significant librarians of his day. He had a rare blend of total honesty in argument and action, great courage and a perception combined with political shrewdness that, despite formidable opposition from librarians and politicians, helped his visions take a practical form.

Smith used to say that he looked to street markets and department stores for his inspiration. At the London Borough of Sutton, where he served for 23 years, he designed and built a new, open and welcoming Central Library which was a marketplace of ideas, imagination and stimulation.

His library service incorporated arts "events" (some 300 a year), the highspot of which was the Croydon Air Pageant on the old Croydon Airport (located in Sutton) featuring aerial displays of old Gipsy and Tiger Moths and the simulation of the start of Amy Johnson's flight to Australia. When asked "How does a library get involved in running an airshow?" Smith replied, "Why not?"

Under his leadership the library became known and admired not only in Britain, but throughout the world. Sutton was the first port of call for many a foreign visiting librarian, arts officer and politician.

Smith was an "East-Ender", born in Dagenham and evacuated during the Second World War to Oxford. In 1944 after a brief spell as a junior in the Oxford City Council's Treasurer's Department he joined the Navy, where he met his future wife, Joy. In 1948 he went back to Dagenham to begin his library career. The librarian was J.G. O'Leary, a colourful, flamboyant character from whom Smith developed two beliefs to guide him throughout the years. One was that public libraries and the arts were integral and the other that librarians had to be much more positive in marketing their services to the widest possible range of users.

After spells of service at Holborn and Finsbury libraries Smith became Deputy Borough Librarian and Arts Officer of the newly formed London Borough of Havering. Almost at once the place started to buzz with excitement with a flourishing arts scene and a book fund the envy of all.

He came to Sutton in 1968 as Director of Libraries and Arts; and later, from 1987, as Director of Leisure Services, he displayed the same enthusiasm and imagination. The library service to him was a part of the developing leisure scene, although this was a view that brought him into conflict with many library colleagues.

In the wider professional arena Smith was a leading contributor at meetings. With him in attendance no chair had any qualms about a deafening silence at question time. It was a point of honour for his to be the first question or observation. Some of us have the vision of his arrival at the pearly gates and, after an initial briefing from St Peter, that voice booming out "Smith - Sutton".

He was able more than many of his colleagues to foresee the financial reductions that were in the offing and to this end he developed his marketing philosophy even further with what was the largest income- generating policy in the country. A mass of publications emerged produced by his staff and himself, aided by exhibitions ranging from bathroom fittings to wholesale gardening demonstrations. There were always art shows in evidence.

From all this activity Smith acquired a reputation for being over-concerned with income-generation to the detriment of the main core of the service. This was definitely not so - there was no keener advocate of the free, effective, accessible and available public library service.

Smith served on the Library and Information Services Council and on Library Association working parties dealing with the arts and marketing, as well as a brief spell on the Library Association Council. But it is fair to say that the gradual process of committee decision-making was never his strong point or style.

At professional meetings he could unintentionally offend with apparent arrogance and self-opinionation. He was passionately concerned with the way public libraries were going and hated hypocrisy, small-mindedness and the fudging of issues. He had other qualities perhaps not so evident to those that did not know him well. He was the most generous of men and, although denying it, sensitive, caring and most loyal to his staff.

When Smith retired in 1991 he brought the same gusto to a newly acquired allotment, waxing lyrical about his asparagus and onions. He also developed an interest in horse racing, planning to visit every racecourse in Britain. He was able to indulge a lifelong interest in music, from Schubert to Fats Waller, and he and his wife were frequent visitors to the Aldeburgh and Bath festivals.

On his retirement, his colleagues in the library and book-trade world received a letter from Roy Smith asking that, in lieu of any farewell gift, they might have in mind to make a contribution to a fund for the purpose of an annual award. This was to be called "The Public Library Entrepreneur of the Year Award". This, the PLEYA award, now of pounds 1,000 and sponsored by Geac Computers and with Library Resources assistance, is presented annually to the individual who has come up with the best entrepreneurial idea and has put it into practice. The PLEYA Award is now firmly established and has both recognised and encouraged innovation in public library practice.

Roy Peter Smith, librarian: born London 24 February 1928; Director of Libraries and Arts, London Borough of Sutton 1968-88, Director of Leisure Services 1987-91; OBE 1987; Library Association Robinson Award for Library Innovations 1981; married 1951 Joy Willson (two daughters); died Hope Cove, Devon 23 August 1996.

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