LESS THAN A YEAR after the publication of her masterly book Doing Something for Australia: George Robertson and the early years of Angus and Robertson, Publishers, 1888-1900, Dr Jennifer Alison has died from cancer, aged 75.
Jennifer spent most of her working life (1960-1990) as a librarian at the University of Sydney. She occupied increasingly senior positions and was particularly effective as Selection and Collection Building Librarian. It is easy for a library to grow in size, but in the best research libraries the growth of their collections must be carefully planned and guided by one or more very knowledgeable people. Jennifer came to have an unrivalled depth and range of knowledge and experience about the University of Sydney Library‘s very extensive collections. She worked with book dealers and academic staff to identify gaps and fill them, and to develop strengths in neglected but important areas. She approached this work both systematically and creatively. The academic staff had confidence in her judgment and she shared her knowledge and skills with her staff, building a small but powerful team. Together they made the University of Sydney Library the premier academic research library in Australia, and one with collections of world class in many areas.
She didn‘t do this in a vacuum. Outside the Library she was active in a wide range of scholarly and bookish organisations. She was active in the Sydney Association of University Teachers (the academic staff union), in the Chancellor‘s Committee which raises funds for student scholarships and other University-wide projects, in the Library Association of Australia, the Guild of Craft Bookbinders, the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, and the Book Collectors‘ Society of Australia.
As a book collector Jennifer‘s main area of interest was Australian private presses. These were the subject of her Master of Librarianship thesis (University of NSW, 1984) The Private Press in Australia: a study of its foundation and the work of some early printers. Geoffrey Farmer, in his The Literature of Australian Private Presses and Fine Printing (BCSA, 1999), calls this work ‘a comprehensive and pioneering study’; unfortunately it has not been published, though copies are available in several libraries.
Jennifer was in many ways a very private person who never revealed very much of herself. But she was not a recluse. She formed lifelong friendships with some of her work colleagues and others, and supported them loyally. She had a very acute mind, a fine sense of humour, and a wonderfully dry wit.
She was delighted when the Bibliographical Society agreed to publish her PhD thesis, and was very proud of the result. Unlike many books originating in theses it is a pleasure to read and is consistently interesting. It is a very fitting reminder of a fine librarian and a fine scholar whose friendship and intellect will be greatly missed.
Editors’ notes: Neil was Jennifers boss in the 1980s when he was University Librarian at the University of Sydney. Neil wrote the book review for Jennifers work on George Robertson which featured in the last Biblionews (Issues 363-364, September-December 2009). Jennifer had at least one book review in Biblionews (Victor Critten-dens John Lang, Australia’s larrikin writer, Issue 351, September 2006); whilst the 264th Issue (December 1984) carried her article “A quite rare item” which related to a 1909 book of poems by Hugh McKay titled “In the changing crystal”, which had only a short run of 16 copies some of which McKay later destroyed, hence its rarity. Other mentions of Jennifer are in a couple of issues along with Alan Crown and Neil Radford as a compiler of Archive of Australian Judaica Holdings to 1985 (Sydney: University of Sydney Library, 1985); and in other issues by Jürgen Wegner, approvingly in connection with her work on private presses, especially her “excellent” University of New South Wales Master of Librarianship thesis “The private press in Australia: a study of its foundation and the work of some early printers”.