Charles Stuart Perry was born on 11 March 1908 in Melbourne, Australia, the eldest of four children of Charles Elliott Perry, an Anglican priest, and his wife, Dorothy Frances McCrae. In 1916 his father moved the family to Christchurch, New Zealand, to take charge of St Michael and All Angels parish. Stuart was educated at Christ’s College from 1917 to 1926. From 1927 to 1930 he was an articled legal clerk with Duncan, Cotterill and Company and read law at Canterbury College, graduating LLB in 1933. As the depression deepened, the financial pressures on the household became such that Perry worked as a teacher: at Waihi School, Winchester (1931), and at St George’s School, Wanganui (1932–33).
In 1933 he joined Wellington Public Library as deputy city librarian, eventually becoming city librarian in 1946. His most notable individual achievement was the transformation of the library from a service based on membership by subscription into a modern library service, but his direction also brought about significant general growth. The collection of 123,000 books grew to over 350,000, a network of six branches grew to 11, and annual issues of material to users rose from 560,000 items to almost 1,600,000.
Perry immediately became involved in the work of the New Zealand Library Association. From 1935 to 1975 the association was the driving force in a series of campaigns which transformed library services. Perry played a major part as a promoter and negotiator, often as an initiator. At retirement he claimed fairly that there had not been a year when he had not held office in the association or been a member of a working committee. He was president of the association in 1952–53, convened its major committees, and was a member of the governing council at various times for a total of 29 years. The association elected him a fellow in 1955 and then honorary life member in 1960 in recognition of his extraordinary contribution. In 1967 he was awarded a fellowship by the Library Association (London).
The campaign Perry joined most enthusiastically was that for the establishment of a national library. This idea had been promoted for decades, but as late as the 1950s there were still disabling divergences of opinion within the association’s membership. Among Perry’s many positive actions in support of this cause, the most effective was his decision, early in his presidential term, to form a working party and bring the association’s thinking to a sharper focus. This enabled it to exert greater pressure on the government, and help bring about the decision in 1964 to establish the National Library of New Zealand.
From the mid 1940s Perry was engaged closely in efforts to have the administration of censorship in New Zealand rationalised and improved in quality, which culminated in the Indecent Publications Act 1963. He was a foundation member of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1964, serving until 1972. In 1965 he published an account of the tribunal’s work and the history of censorship legislation in New Zealand.
An ability to anticipate trends was apparent again in 1968 with his initiation of a debate about a public lending right to provide payment to authors for books borrowed from libraries. In this he sought to persuade his colleagues to take a positive and constructive view of the issue. The New Zealand Authors’ Fund was eventually established in 1973.
Perry’s wider interest in literature and writing was expressed through creative and historical writing and book reviewing. He published a book of verse in 1934 and, in 1980, a history of legal and illegal whisky distilling in New Zealand. He was a member (1936–60) and president (1950–52) of the executive of PEN New Zealand Centre, and was a member of the Wellington regional committee of the National Historic Places Trust (chairman in 1958 and 1959).
Following his retirement in 1973, Perry turned again to his legal interests. While a member he had taken a keen interest in the deliberative work of the Indecent Publications Tribunal, and continued to do so as a member of the New Zealand Press Council (1975–82). He also undertook legal editing work for local publishers. In 1980 he was admitted to the Bar.
Perry had married Patricia Anne Alexander at Wellington on 14 December 1939; they had a daughter and twin sons. He died at his home in Wellington on 12 October 1982, survived by his family.