Death of a Librarian

On this day in 1925, Sir John Young Walker Macalister died in London, aged 69. Sir John was one of the Macalisters of Tarbert, though the Tarbert lands had been lost long before his time and he was raised in Aberdeen and Liverpool. His memory is often overshadowed by that of his illustrious brother, Sir Donald Macalister, who was principal of Glasgow University for twenty-two years and chancellor for four years after that, but it could be argued that his influence was felt much more widely. 

Forced by ill health to abandon a medical degree at Edinburgh University, Sir John instead pursued a career in librarianship. After working in Liverpool and Leeds, he settled in London, where he combined his two interests to become the resident librarian for the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society. He then joined the struggling Library Association, which he completely transformed: From a handful of mainly London-based library clerks with expertise in a variety of subjects but no proper training as librarians, he built it into a nationwide organisation of professionals. He organised international conferences so that librarians from different countries could learn from each other. When, in 1877, the Library Association received its Royal Charter, it was almost entirely due to Sir John’s efforts.

Macalister also wrote extensively on librarianship. At a time when open access was controversial, he advocated public libraries that would make information accessible to all. His concern that there should be uniformity in the standards of librarians’ knowledge and service was part of what led to the establishment of the first library school, at University College, London. For years he edited the Library Journal, through which he was able to spread his ideas about librarianship as a profession. In fact, many of the principles valued by the library profession today were first articulated by Sir John Macalister. 

During the First World War, Sir John was founder and secretary of the War Office Surgical Advisory Committee; he organized an Emergency Surgical Aid Corps for the Admiralty, War Office and Police, and in 1919 he was knighted in recognition of these services. By all accounts he was well liked, counting many respected intellectuals among his friends, including the writer Mark Twain (whose personal archive includes their correspondence). One scholar observed that the “life and career of Sir John Young Walker MacAlister reads like a history of librarianship in Britain.”[1] But his influence is felt far beyond his own country. By the time of his death, he had transformed librarians’ views of their profession, which in turn transformed the profession – not only in the UK but in much of the Western world.

At his own request, Sir John Young Walker Macalister was laid to rest with his ancestors in Tarbert.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011

[1]Anne M. K. Collins,  review of The Incomparable Mac: A Biographical Study of Sir John Young Walker Macalister in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 72(3) July 1984: 321.


2 thoughts on “Death of a Librarian

  1. Pingback: Friendship across the ocean: Mark Twain and Sir John MacAlister | King's Treasures

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