Pauline Fanning

Pauline Fanning 1915-2012

Obituary from Australian Academic and Research Libraries 43.3 (Sep 2012): 249-250.

Pauline Dixon was born in Hobart on 18 January 1915 and educated at the Collegiate School and the University of Tasmania. In 1936, she was recruited by the Commonwealth National Library as a cataloguer and came to live in the small town of Canberra. Five years later, she married Bill Fanning, a lawyer in the Attorney-General’s Department, and as a result she lost her permanent position in the Public Service. She remained in the Library as a temporary officer and only in 1967, when the marriage bar was lifted, did she regain permanency. By that time, she had achieved an almost legendary position within the National Library as the great authority on the Australian collections and as a confidant of Governors Generals, politicians, senior public servants, academics, journalists, writers and artists.

At the time of her retirement in 1980, she held the position of Director of the Australian National Humanities Library, one of the divisions created by George Chandler. In 1945, Pauline Fanning succeeded L.F. Fitzhardinge as the librarian in charge of the Australian collections, encompassing books and other publications, manuscripts, maps and pictures. She immediately took on the task of overseeing the gradual transfer of the collection of John Ferguson, the largest collection ever acquired by the Library, and of assisting him with the compilation of the multivolume Bibliography of Australia. This work was only completed in 1970, the year after Ferguson’s death.

Mrs Fanning also played a central role in the acquisition of the Nan Kivell Collection, another complex and protracted acquisition. Years spent checking Ferguson entries, examining variant editions, cataloguing maps, paintings, and manuscripts, and compiling the annual publication Australian Books (1949-91) gave her an extraordinary knowledge of the collections and of Australian bibliography. Her general Australian knowledge was also impressive, attributable not only to wide reading but also her work for the Australian Encyclopaedia (1963). She was, for instance, surprisingly well-informed on the history of Australian boxing.

The original clientele of the Library were parliamentarians, some of whom, like Dame Enid Lyons, Clyde Cameron and Sir Paul Hasluck, were friends and admirers of Mrs Fanning. From the 1940s onwards academics and postgraduate students were increasingly attracted to the Library, a trend that accelerated after its permanent building was finally opened in 1968. Most of these researchers met Mrs Fanning and drew on her knowledge. J.C. Beaglehole, Manning Clark, Russel Ward, Tom Inglis Moore, A.D. Hope, Sir Keith Hancock, Bernard Smith and Dorothy Green are just a few examples of scholars who warmly acknowledged her help. Other requests for research assistance came from the upper levels of the Public Service, sometimes from powerful mandarins such as Sir Arthur Tange, Sir Frederick Wheeler and Sir John Crawford, all of whom had known Mrs Fanning since their early days in Canberra.

As collection-builders, Pauline Fanning and Sir Harold White, the National Librarian, were a formidable team. They maintained a huge correspondence and travelled widely, visiting donors, dealers and auctioneers, and they encouraged their staff and liaison officers overseas to follow up every possible lead. They were not always successful, but the great growth of the Library’s collections between 1945 and 1980 was largely due to their determination, energy, diplomacy and their grand vision of an Australian national library.

White and his deputy, Cliff Burmester, were known to call her ‘Paul’, but to the rest of the staff she was always ‘Mrs Fanning’. Some were intimidated by her reserved manner, but those who worked closely with her found her to be extremely supportive. They shared her enthusiasm for acquisition and reference work and they enjoyed her wit and humour and her stories of Kenneth Binns, White and other distant figures. Pauline Fanning remained associated with the Library during her long retirement, as a researcher for the Australian National Dictionary and as a valuer for the Cultural Gifts Program. She died at her home in Canberra on 24 April 2012.

Graeme Powell