Page 1: Biography
Blackett, Annie Maude
This biography, written by Randal Springer, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Annie Maude Blackett was born on 30 July 1889 at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the daughter of Annie Pile and her husband, Thomas Robert Blackett, a fitter. Her education, at public and private schools in Newcastle, included three years at a boarding school. She later lived in South Africa, far from schools of any kind.
Maude Blackett arrived in New Zealand around 1907, probably with her sister Ellen, and lived in Christchurch. On 1 July 1913 she began working as a junior assistant at the Canterbury Public Library for 12s. 6d. a week. The librarian, Howard Strong, was not partial to lady assistants, but when he heard Maude found it difficult to live on her salary, he arranged for it to be increased to £1. She was promoted to second assistant by Strong’s successor, Ernest Bell, an experienced English librarian. Under his direction a new system of cataloguing and classifying books was introduced. Blackett later acknowledged that she owed Bell a great deal for the training he gave her.
In March 1918 she took up the position of chief librarian at Wanganui Public Library. From the beginning she formed a rapport with the library committee and the town clerk, receiving their support and that of their successors during her time in office. She was given an assistant to help prepare a new book catalogue and she subsequently introduced several innovations, the most important being a juvenile department. Throughout her career, children’s reading needs were her major concern. Another initiative was to dispatch old books to mental institutions and military camps. On one occasion during the Second World War she sent a truck to Waiouru with 1½ tons of books.
Blackett arranged talks for children by various speakers. On more than one occasion she persuaded the Wanganui City Council to invite J. C. Andersen, the librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library. She advertised in the local paper for Three Castles cigarette cards so they could be redeemed for copies of The ‘Three Castles’ book of New Zealand birds. To encourage children in the care of books, she had a small sticker inserted in each juvenile book asking the children to ‘Treat this book as a bee treats a flower’.
Blackett gained the Library Association of the United Kingdom’s certificate for practical library administration in 1922. As the city and the number of library subscribers grew, it became apparent that larger premises would be required. With funds from the Alexander bequest, the Alexander Library was built in Queens Park and opened in June 1933. The city council’s wisdom in allowing Blackett to participate in the planning of the new library became evident when compliments were received from visiting librarians. One, Ralph Munn, director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, described it as a model of careful planning. Munn was conducting a survey of libraries that had been initiated by the Libraries Association of New Zealand. The association also sponsored the publication of the Munn–Barr report in 1934, which set the pattern for the development of libraries for the next 30 years.
Blackett served for many years on the executive of the association (later the New Zealand Library Association) and was president in 1944–45. She attended the association’s conference in Dunedin in 1926 and at her invitation the conference was held in Wanganui the next year. A paper she prepared for this gathering was published as a booklet, Fifty years’ record of the Wanganui Public Library, 1877–1927. When she went to England on leave in 1936, the association asked the Wanganui City Council to extend her leave on half pay for another two months so she could attend conferences and meet librarians. During this time she attended a major conference at Margate and addressed the thousand delegates on her work in Wanganui.
In 1939 Blackett was secretary and treasurer of the Wanganui Historical Committee, which was involved with the centennial celebrations. As she grew older she appeared a rather formidable figure to children and her staff found her somewhat remote. Although she could be extremely kind, she was a reserved person and did not confide in her colleagues, who were unaware that her younger sister Ellen had suffered a breakdown and spent many years in mental institutions. Maude supported her financially and wrote to her every day.
Maude Blackett was one of the first chief librarians to have been trained in New Zealand. She consistently promoted the professionalism of the country’s library service. On her retirement in 1950 she was made a life member of the New Zealand Library Association and she maintained her interest in libraries until her death in Wanganui on 12 June 1956. She had never married.