State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 61 Autumn 1998


Library Profile
Geoffrey Serle

When A new Library Council of Victoria was about to come into being in the mid-1960s in the aftermath of the Jungwirth Inquiry, Geoff Serle confided to me his disappointment that he, as a Reader in History at Monash University, could not aspire to occupy the position reserved for a senior member of the academic hierarchy. In the event it was the late Guy Manton, Dean of Arts at Monash, who was chosen. Some years later A. G. L. Shaw was to be called to the same responsibility, a heavy one in an institution that is so often confronted with the diverse demands of its public-reference and research functions. Serle's turn did not come till his eminence could be recognized in retirement, and without reference to distinctions of rank that were quite irrelevant in his case. In 1989, however, it was another new creation, the Council of the State Library of Victoria, that received him as its first Vice-President for a five-year term up to his seventy-second birthday in 1994.
It is not hard to find the reasons for the regret expressed nearly a quarter of a century before. We are fortunate that Serle was persuaded to entrust to the late Alec Bolton's Officina Brindabella in 1988 his memoir Percival Serle, 1871–1951: Biographer, Bibliographer, Anthologist and Art Curator. In this deceptively low-key account there is much that is revealing and interesting. To have a hand in guiding the fortunes of the State Library was a means of compensating for his father's failure over a long period to become a Trustee of the old body grouping the three institutions (library, art gallery, and museum) then on the Swanston Street site. For anyone with an acute sense of history and of Victorian tradition there had to be real pleasure and satisfaction in making good an earlier deplorable omission.
Percival Serle was, as the memoir indicates, a predecessor in another respect: ‘in 1951 he founded the Friends of the Public Library, a group which did not survive long (but which I revived in 1966 as the Friends of the La Trobe Library)’ (p. 50). In a characteristically laconic statement Geoff Serle set out our chief reason for recording his death and commemorating his life in what, but for a change of name explained elsewhere, would have been the first issue of the thirty-first year of the La Trobe Library Journal.
There will be many obituaries and many assessments of a remarkable career. Two historians closely connected with the State Library of Victoria — A. G. L. Shaw and Stuart Macintyre — produced the substantial notices that appeared in The Australian and The Age respectively on 29 April 1998. Naturally enough, and despite the multiple facets of Serle's public and literary activity, they stressed his work as historian and biographer. A sometime Monash colleague and a fellow-partisan of the State Library of Victoria can perhaps more usefully dwell on personal reminiscences and on an evaluation of what Geoff Serle contributed to the La Trobe enterprise.

Geoffrey Serle — Founding Editor [Photograph courtesy of Jessie Serle]

The new Monash University I joined in May 1962 was a stimulating place and small enough still for one to be able to get to know not only all the members of the Faculty of Arts, but many colleagues elsewhere as well. Geoff Serle, who was soon to be promoted to the Faculty's first Readership — a position the University safeguarded for authentically distinguished researchers — was someone to respect, especially if one combined a professional commitment to French literature with a native's interest in things Australian. Paradoxically, the school of Chris Brennan and A. R. Chisholm was a better preparation for this sort of sympathy than many conventional degrees in English or History of that period. Consequently I did not fail to buy The Golden Age as soon as it appeared in 1963.
The first prolonged contact with Serle I remember was an afternoon discussion on university governance at the house of Leslie Bodi, later Monash's first Professor of German. It was a Saturday in 1962, no doubt strategically situated between the football and cricket seasons. The topic was god-professors, something that worried people at a time when universities were expanding into their own golden age and when democracy and collegiality seemed as important as efficiency and productivity. Geoff was later to write up his thoughts as ‘God-Professors and their Juniors’ (Vestes, 6, 1963, pp. 11–17). Looking back across the decades I can still share the wariness about the administrative treadmill and, of course, admire the humanity and decency that were always there.
As a dweller on the fringes of History and as a somewhat anachronistic annaliste of the Febvrian tendency, I wondered about Serle's turn towards biography after The Rush to be Rich and From Deserts the Prophets Came. However, remembering Lucien Febvre's own later work on French Renaissance figures and feeling uncomfortable with academic sectarianism, I understand how the editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, by any standard an exceptional prosopographical achievement, could be seduced by rich personal archives into writing the lives of such figures as John Monash and Robin Boyd. I have come to think that French historiography has lost by leaving biography to hacks and journalists for the most part.
With the passing of the years and Serle's increasing involvement with Canberra and the ADB, I saw less of him, except in the context of the State Library. I recognized the old breadth and good sense in his presidential address to Section 26 of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1973 (‘The State of the Profession in Australia’, Historical Studies, no. 61, October 1973, pp. 686–702) and was provoked by it to not always flattering thoughts about French studies in this country. Nevertheless, it was books that brought us together, not least in his retirement years.
Serle enlisted my willing aid in the setting-up period of the Friends of the La Trobe Library. I recall early interim-committee meetings at the Library itself and even an executive gathering at Tristan Buesst's apartment in Amesbury House. Later I withdrew to devote myself to a similar group set up at Monash. However, Geoff was kind enough to invite my wife and me with Peggy Anthony to see the books left at ‘Asolo’ in Hawthorn after his mother's death in 1968. A copy of Percival Serle's 1923
edition of Christopher Smart's A Song to David and Other Poems was a more than agreeable memento of that occasion. This was all of a piece with the information he so willingly and effectively provided on the nineteenth-century Victorians whose private libraries I was studying and writing up for the La Trobe Library Journal, which he edited from its inception in 1968 till 1978.
For well over a decade Serle was a constant presence, successively Secretary, Vice-President, President and Vice-President again, in the committee of the Friends of the La Trobe Library. His partial, then total, redeployment to the Australian National University as Editor of ADB eventually severed that active link. None the less it was with pleasure and genuine relief that his friends and admirers learnt of his appointment to the newly reshaped Council of the State Library in 1989. It was, and is, essential to have historians’ voices heard when decisions are made affecting the users of Victoria's greatest heritage collection of books, newspapers, manuscripts, pictures and other related material. As everyone is aware, the last decade has been a difficult and at times uncertain one, not least, I suspect, for members of the State Library's Council before it was replaced by the present Board. One could easily be caught in the crossfire between disgruntled readers and impatient managers. In retrospect I can appreciate the way Geoff combined a sometimes fierce loyalty to the Library's administrators with understanding of users’ complaints. His sense of propriety and his grasp of scholars’ needs were both in evidence throughout the debates on policy and practice.
It was he who organized the invitation for me to deliver a Redmond Barry Lecture in 1990 (later printed as ‘Barry's “Great Emporium” in the Twenty-First Century: the Future of the State Library of Victoria Collections’, La Trobe Library Journal, no. 46, Spring 1991, pp. 49–59), and he can hardly have been unaware of my attachment to a number of traditional values. The point is that they were his as well. The man who supported the La Trobe Librarian in the early years and encouraged the compilation of the invaluable Biography Index knew well what he and we wanted from a great Victorian institution.
More than anybody else perhaps, Serle lived and worked for the ideal of the La Trobe, something to set alongside the Mitchell as a legitimate expression of Melbourne's pride. That vision must be preserved amidst the realities of a complicated amalgam of buildings and the pressures of fashionable administrative models. The challenge is there for those who guide the Library's destinies and for those who use it day by day for their work. We who have come out of three decades of Geoff Serle's creation — the Friends — are certainly looking for the perpetuation of all the essential features of the original La Trobe design.
Wallace Kirsop
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