Jean Hagger

Jean Hagger (1917-2008) 

Obituary from The Australian Library Journal November 2008 [1]

Jean Hagger, who died on 16th July 2008 in her 91st year, was the foundation head of the RMIT Department of Librarianship and a pioneer of education for librarianship in Australia.

Jean was born in Preston, Melbourne on 11th October 1917. She was actually christened Margaret Jean Hagger but never used the Margaret, insisting on being called simply ‘Jean’. I sometimes thought that she quietly rejoiced, as a cataloguer and teacher of cataloguing, in having an unused forename.

Jean attended primary school in Preston, and then Coburg High School. From Coburg she won a scholarship to the Melbourne Girls High School, known since 1934 as Mac.Robertson High School. The change in the school’s name was made following a very substantial donation but Jean’s niece told me that Jean strongly disapproved of the change and invariably referred to her old school by its former name.

Nowadays it is almost conventional wisdom that students can expect to experience at least one significant change in career during their working life. Jean, however, was of a generation when that was certainly not the case and when the security of an assured career was highly valued and people expected to follow one career through to retirement. It is a tribute to her strength of character and sense of ‘can do’ that Jean in her lifetime pursued no less than four different careers. In 1937 she graduated from Melbourne Teachers College with a Trained Primary Teachers Certificate. Her first position was in a country school but in 1943 she was teaching third grade at East Coburg Primary School when the headmaster asked for a volunteer to set up a school library. Jean’s offer was accepted. She commenced studies for the examinations of the Australian Institute of Librarians (later the Library Association of Australia and now the Australian Library and Information Association) and received encouragement from a number of people, in particular Colin McCallum, State Librarian of Victoria, and Elinor Archer, Chief Librarian at CSIRO.

By 1946 Jean had decided that her future lay in librarianship rather than in primary teaching and so she resigned from the Education Department in order to enrol at Melbourne University. There she worked part-time in the library and completed her basic professional qualification whilst also successfully pursuing her studies for a BA. So began a second career. In 1952 Jean worked in the library of the United States Information Service in Melbourne. Thelma Passo was the librarian and became Jean’s close friend and mentor. The time spent there inspired Jean to seek experience in the United States. She was fortunate to work at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh which was not only an excellent example of a public library, with values of service Jean came to admire, but was also adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh which had one of the leading American schools of librarianship. Whilst in Pittsburgh she was able to audit some of the classes.

Following this experience she obtained a position at the University of Melbourne in the Baillieu Library and very soon was undertaking part-time teaching at the library training school attached to the State Library of Victoria. This continued for some years until, in 1960-61, she was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the School of Librarianship at the University of Illinois where she completed a Master of Library Science degree [2].

Returning to Melbourne she found that the State Library was reducing its classes, especially those conducted in the evening. There were loud protests from students and prospective students, and the Victorian branch of the Library Association of Australia formed a committee, of which Jean was a member, to assess the demand for professional education for librarianship in Victoria. Meanwhile the branch organised part-time classes for which RMIT provided accommodation, Jean being one of the lecturers. Eventually this led to the establishment of a Department of Librarianship at RMIT and Jean was appointed as its Head. She was the first female head of department at RMIT and the only one in the Institute’s first century. This was the beginning of a third career as a professional educator.

The first courses were offered in 1963 and were for the Registration Examination of the Library Association of Australia. From the outset the courses were in high demand: 189 students were enrolled in the first year. In April Jean was joined by Ian Britain and they divided the syllabus between them with help from part-time staff. At the end of the first year Jean was awarded a British Council grant to study education for librarianship in the UK. This proved to be a valuable experience because, postgraduate school at the University of New South Wales notwithstanding, education for librarianship in Australia was developing along British rather than North American lines. The knowledge and experience gained was put to good use in the design of the programs at RMIT which was the first tertiary institution in Australia to offer an undergraduate program in librarianship.

In 1965 a two-year undergraduate program was introduced, leading to an Associate Diploma and in 1970 a four-year course led to a Bachelor of Social Science in Librarianship. There was also a one-year course leading to a Graduate Diploma. All the courses were available part-time and all were accredited by the Library Association of Australia. Jean recalled a flurry of interest when she appeared before the RMIT Council to answer questions about the proposal for the Associate Diploma: she was the first female to set foot in a Council meeting. Later, in the 1970s, she served on the Council for a year as the representative from the Board of Studies.

Jean was interested in research in librarianship and hoped, before her retirement, to see a graduate from the department with a higher degree in librarianship. That ambition was realised when the first student submitted his thesis in 1977 and graduated in May 1978. The wish to foster research also motivated her, on her retirement, to endow the Jean Hagger Librarianship Research Support Fund at RMIT. Jean retired from RMIT in December 1977.

She now embarked on a fourth and final career as a freelance indexer. She was a foundation member of the Australian Society of Indexers (now the Australia and New Zealand Society of Indexers). Amongst the titles for which she compiled the index were The Tech (a centenary history of RMIT) [3] and Blanche d’Alpuget’s biography of Bob Hawke. However, perhaps her greatest achievement as an indexer was the preparation of the indexes to five of the seven volumes in the Historical Records of Victoria. Her accomplishments as an indexer, and her contribution to the Society, were recognised by the conferment of life membership.

When Zonta – the women’s service club – was re-established in Australia in 1965 Jean was one of the foundation members. She remained an active member until the end and was one of two life members of the branch covering Victoria. Jean always said that she experienced no difficulty as a lone female. However, Jack Ward, then Librarian of RMIT, once recalled the Principal’s ponderous ‘Gentlemen and Miss Hagger’ at the opening of meetings of the Board of Advanced Studies and hers was not an easy task. RMIT, even in the 1970s, was still a very male-oriented organisation and she had the added problem of heading a program which, though vocational, was not technological in the usual sense of that term. In an interview with Tony Dare, co-author of the history of RMIT, Jean acknowledged the influence of Jack Ward and the support of the Principal, Peter Jackson, and the Vice-Principal, Ralph Traill. However, much of her success was due to her own social and political skills.

Jean built a school of librarianship from scratch in a state where there was no model to follow and in a country where the only other model was but four years old. There was no tradition of professional education as an academic career. She found lecturers where she could, recruited them and nurtured them. She built a school which, in fifteen years, progressed from offering part-time courses for the Registration Examination to one offering a four year degree, a graduate diploma, and a higher degree by research.

She was a generous person to work for and a never failing source of encouragement to her staff. Unlike some of her contemporaries she was always ready to draw on the perceived strengths of her staff and to put her trust in them. She was willing to give guidance if asked but, so long as a task was accomplished smoothly, she did not interfere. She was equally supportive of students in difficulty. A country student, hospitalised in Melbourne far from home found a regular visitor in Jean. Unfortunately this was not a side of her personality revealed to many students who tended to go in awe of her.

Jean was also a woman of great courage who faced Kipling’s two impostors with modesty, composure and determination. She did not seek to promote herself, except as a means of promoting her department or colleagues, and she faced adversity without flinching. In 1980 she was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus which required an operation. At that time the survival rate for this disease was 10% but she faced it with typical courage and still carried on her life. Shortly before she was due to be admitted to hospital she attended a seminar on the newly published second edition of the Anglo American Cataloguing Rules, and John Simkin recalls that the evening before admission to hospital she chaired a meeting of the Australian Society of Indexers with her usual composure and efficiency.

Jean frequently went to concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was a subscriber to Opera Australia. However, in the last few years of her life she found it difficult to attend because she did not like to drive any great distance, especially at night. She was particularly fond of Richard Strauss’s great masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier – she used to say that she felt her spine tingle whenever she heard the waltz from that opera. There was a production in Melbourne six years ago and she lamented that she found it too difficult to go, until it was suggested that she book herself into the Sheraton on Southbank (now the Langham Hotel) which she did, and dined out on the story for quite a while, as she did also on her experience of two cruises on the QE2 – even at the age of 80 she was still one of the younger and more able passengers, if not one of the most wealthy.

Jean died on 16th July after a short illness following a stroke, and in the end death came as a friend. She leaves a large footprint as a librarian, a professional educator, an indexer and as a human being. She was a thorough professional, a great mentor and was highly respected. We will all miss her.

Michael J Ramsden, FLAA Former Head, Department of Librarianship and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, RMIT


[1] In preparing this tribute I have drawn on the transcript of an interview given by Jean to Tony Dare on 30th April 1979, when he was working on the history of RMIT. I have drawn also on the recollections of family and of colleagues who spoke at a memorial function at RMIT on 7th August 2008. 

[2] Jean retained her links with the School of Librarianship at Illinois and, as a member of Beta Phi Mu and a great admirer of Captain Cook, was instrumental in persuading the society to publish The three voyages of Captain Cook by Frank Paluka, Pittsburgh, Beta Phi Mu, 1974.

[3] Stephen Murray-Smith and Anthony John Dare. The Tech: a centenary history of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Hyland House, 1987.