Cyril Brideson

Hedley Cyril Brideson 1910-30

Obituary Australian Academic and Research Libraries, 2003

Hedley Brideson was Principal (later State) Librarian of the Public (later State) Library of South Australia from 1955 until his early retirement on medical invalidity in 1970.

He was appointed to the staff of the Public Library of South Australia as a cadet in 1926. He gained a Bachelor of Arts degree by part-time study at the University of Adelaide. His chance for prominence came in 1942, when he was asked to head a specialist unit in the public library to provide scientific and technical printed information to assist the war effort. Brideson's work in establishing and promoting this unit (named the Research Service) was unprecedented and brilliantly successful. He gave countless radio presentations and public lectures; visited firms and factories; and wrote press releases and articles for trade journals to promote the service. So successful did it become that it continued for nearly 25 years after the end of the war. Brideson extended its activities to include documentary film shows, public lectures, and the publication and distribution of hundreds of subject bibliographies. These activities were to set the course and tone of Brideson's subsequent library career.

He was a man of gregarious disposition, and he relished opportunities to be seen and heard in his world. He was a member of the Adelaide Rostrum Club, the Adelaide Rotary Club, the Adelaide Club, a Freemason, and Chairman of the Writers' Week Committee of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Brideson's administration of the State Library is best remembered and illustrated by the establishment of the municipal lending library system, the construction of a new State Library building, and by the Australiana Facsimile Editions publishing program.

Noteworthy too, was his fascination with the application of technology to libraries. He would have delighted in today's IT age, and needed little persuasion to establish a modern book bindery, an offset printing plant, an extensive photographic laboratory and to be a prompt purchaser of new electronic photocopying equipment and a Flexowriter.

Before the passing of the Libraries (Subsidies) Act in 1955 the State Library was the only source of free public book lending in South Australia. Brideson, and many others, made a massive, and finally successful, effort to convince the government actively to move on the establishment of free municipal public libraries. He was, moreover, able to convince the government and the libraries board to allow the State Library to provide assistance to public libraries with free initial bookstocks and through the central purchase and processing of all future books. The way this system was established allowed the State Library to buy books in bulk at very low prices and to exercise considerable influence over public library standards of service, both quantitative and qualitative. Under these conditions, the first wave of about 20 public library services was established within the first decade after 1955.

In the early 1960s accommodation for the State Library was at crisis point. In addition to the main building some 20 other sites were being used to store periodicals, newspapers and maps. One of Brideson's great successes was to gain from the government approval and funds for a vast new building. This building, the Bastyan (now Spence) Wing was opened in 1967, and was sufficient for a time to house all of the collections and services at the one North Terrace site.

In 1962 the first six items of the facsimile publication program appeared. These were printed on a newly available Xerox Copyflo machine, which Brideson had earlier seen on a Carnegie Corporation overseas study tour. These items were the precursors of a major Australian publishing venture of facsimile works, largely of Australian explorers' journals. It won acclaim not only in Australia, but also overseas. There were also many other works of various kinds published. Almost all publications were printed and bound within the Library Bindery, on machinery specially purchased for the purpose.

With regard to the staff for whom he was responsible, Brideson conducted a never-ending bombardment-by-docket of the State Public Service Commissioner in order to increase both numbers and salary levels, with some success. He also did his utmost to persuade his staff to complete both academic and professional qualifications, and this at a time when such qualifications were not general and brought no pecuniary reward. Brideson's constantly increasing need for additional staff to second to expanding state government departmental libraries, to support the central services to public libraries, and to service the publications program, meant that the staffing situation at the State Library itself was sometimes dire.

Enough has been said to support the view that Brideson was an energetic and innovative state librarian, and a successful manipulator of community and government support. He was not, however, a strategic planner, but rather a spectacular campaigner in a series of opportunistic forays. A favourite expression of his was 'Throw away a sprat to catch a mackerel'. During his term of office the public image of the library was high. The substance of its situation was rather different.

Unfortunately- and whether justly or unjustly- Brideson was not regarded at the time warmly or with much professional respect by many of his staff. Whilst he could on occasion be supportive and generous to individual staff members having personal problems, he often seemed indifferent to, and even dismissive of, others judged as being of lesser social status. Senior staff resented the qualitative dilution and numerical loss of staff to services seen as not essential to the State Library's own needs. His day-to-day administration seemed wayward and frequently inconsiderate. His greatest professional weakness was failure to monitor the performance and continuing relevance of the innovations he had brought into being. He would quickly lose interest in his old ideas in favour of his next new idea. The effect of this failure to attend to such management matters was evident before his sudden retirement, and was perhaps, a causal factor in it. After his retirement not much of the structures he had erected, or the systems he had put in place survived.

The public library system was close to collapse because of failings in the central book provision system. Participating councils were already demanding explanations and reform, and they had not been answered. It was to be a further five years before any new councils ventured to dip their corporate toes into the library pond. The publications program was supposed to be self-supporting. It never was, and it became a constant drain on the state library's staff resources and its book-binding capacity. By the time the program was closed down a large sum of capital was tied up in unsold stock.

Throughout the decade 1955-1965 the library's senior staff became increasingly restive and disquieted, as they saw core services eroded by what seemed distorted priorities. There are many reasons why people change their jobs but the fact is that by 1965 four out of the five most senior staff members had voted with their feet, and left the state. The State Library's historian, Carl Bridge, in his A Trunk Full of Books, summarised Brideson's career admirably. Whilst paying full tribute to his remarkable achievements, Bridge concludes: Brideson's juggling of too many balls found him out, with sad consequences for the administration of both the subsidised libraries and the facsimile programme. He was a remarkable ambassador for free library and information services and a tireless worker. It is a pity he lost his grip.

R K Olding

C Bridge A Trunk Full of Books; History of the State Library of South Australia and Its Forerunners Adelaide Wakefield Press 1986 p214