Geoffrey Thomas Alley, who became New Zealand’s first national librarian in 1964, was born in Amberley, North Canterbury, on 4 February 1903. He was the fourth son and fifth of seven children of Frederick James Alley, an innovative teacher who gave his children a love of literature, music, physical fitness and the land, and his wife, Clara Maria Buckingham, who in 1896 had been one of the youngest delegates at the inaugural meeting of the National Council of the Women of New Zealand. Two of Geoffrey’s siblings were to become well known for their work in education: his sister Gwen Somerset in Canterbury and Feilding, and his brother Rewi in China.
In May 1921 Geoffrey left Christchurch Boys’ High School to manage a farm on very poor land near Lumsden in Southland, which his father had bought some 16 years earlier. He remained there until 1926, becoming prominent in Southland rugby. He was in the All Black teams that toured Australia in 1926 and South Africa in 1928, playing at lock. Immensely strong, he held the scrum together in 14 matches in South Africa, 10 of them consecutive.
In December 1925 Alley was baptised in the Anglican church in Lumsden, before entering Canterbury College in 1926. He had thought of taking Anglican orders but did not follow this through. At Canterbury he came under the influence of the professor of education, James Shelley. At the end of 1929, when he completed his studies for BA with a Senior Scholarship in education, he was appointed a WEA tutor to carry out an experiment in rural adult education, under Shelley’s direction and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, visiting country groups with a van equipped to carry books and other teaching materials. He did this until the end of 1937; his account of the first two years was accepted for his MA, which he gained with first-class honours in 1932.
On 11 December 1930, at Gebbies Valley in the Port Hills, Alley married Euphan Margaret Jamieson, a talented pianist whom he had met in 1927. The couple were to have four children: two daughters and two sons.
Alley’s work in rural adult education led to his becoming associated with a group, supported by the Carnegie Corporation, which was preparing plans for improved rural library services as a first step in following up the Carnegie-sponsored 1934 Munn–Barr report on New Zealand libraries. In 1936 he carried out an investigation in Taranaki for this group and in doing so impressed two influential members, T. D. H. Hall, clerk of the House of Representatives, and A. D. McIntosh of the Prime Minister’s Department. Both had close associations with the General Assembly Library and were also trusted by the minister of education, Peter Fraser. They persuaded Fraser that a standalone country library service under Alley’s direction, to which other functions could later be added, was the way ahead.
In 1937, when the government established the Country Library Service, Alley was appointed to head it. Initially intended as a replacement for the subsidies to rural libraries which had been abolished from 1930, it was described as ‘the beginning of a comprehensive national library system’. It rapidly expanded its services to public libraries, schools and military camps, and began the compilation of national records of library holdings which became the focus of inter-library lending and other forms of co-operation. In 1945, with decisions to add a National Library Centre and a graduate library school in Wellington, it was reconstituted as the National Library Service (NLS), with Alley as director. These developments were strongly supported and assisted by the New Zealand Library Association (NZLA), of which Alley was honorary secretary from 1942 to 1952, and president in 1959–60.
In 1953 the NZLA asked the government to examine the problems caused by the division of national library responsibilities among the NLS, the General Assembly Library, and the Alexander Turnbull Library. An initial report in 1956 was endorsed in 1958 by a parliamentary select committee and in 1962 by the royal commission on state services. Cabinet decided in late 1963 to establish a national library incorporating all three libraries, and Alley was appointed national librarian in March 1964. A bill was passed into law, with many amendments and amid great controversy, on 30 October 1965. Alley retired on 31 December 1967, having, in effect, turned the first large sod.
Alley was more of an implementer than a planner. The agenda for the early stages of the library service was mainly set by McIntosh, who remained an important mentor to Alley throughout his career. It was a centralising agenda, a cause of later dissent with other librarians who wanted regional solutions to library organisation. Similarly, the impetus for the later campaign for the establishment of a national library came from Stuart Perry, the Wellington city librarian, and Alley was at first reluctant to become involved. But the achievement of the aims, in both cases, depended on Alley’s dogged persistence – amounting often to bloody-mindedness – in pushing objectives as diverse as the provision of free service in public libraries and the creation of bibliographical records.
Alley inspired great devotion in many who worked closely with him. When he retired, T. P. Shand, who had seen the National Library bill through its early stages, described him as ‘one of our greatest public servants’. He had a respect for working New Zealanders and confidence in their ability to respond to intellectual stimulus. But he also suffered from a sense of insecurity, incongruous in one with such a commanding presence, which made him sensitive to imagined slights and increasingly, as he aged, intolerant of opposing opinions. One Public Service Commission inspector said that at times he was as awkward as only an All Black lock could be. It is tempting to speculate on how much more affection the library profession would have developed for the National Library if he had been an easier person to deal with.
Alley was one of the first five fellows elected by the NZLA in 1955. In June 1958 he was made an OBE. He wrote a volume, The farmer in New Zealand , for the centennial publication series, but he did not find it easy to put his thoughts on paper, and it was necessary for D. O. W. Hall to help him complete it. His writings on library matters tended to be rather cryptic. His love of sport, which remained strong (though he hated public references to his All Black career), was expressed both by attendance at All Black reunions and by his membership of the New Zealand Citizens’ All Black Tour Association in 1960, which tried to persuade Prime Minister Walter Nash to accept the policy of ‘No Maoris, no tour’ to South Africa. Apart from a spell from 1968 to 1971 as a visiting professor at the School of Library and Information Science, University of Western Ontario, he spent his retirement on his two-acre property in Upper Hutt which he had acquired in 1946 and which supported the kind of subsistence living he had learned from his parents. Geoffrey Alley died at home on 25 September 1986 and was cremated at Karori. Euphan died in 1987. All their children survived them.