The Pioneers: Maurice Line (1928–2010) — David Russon

Maurice Line
Maurice Line

Maurice Line was one of the most outstanding librarians of his generation, dominating the profession in the latter half of the twentieth century, a time of crucial significance for library developments, particularly in the United Kingdom. His contributions to the profession extended internationally, specifically through the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) where he was instrumental in moving forward the Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) core program.

Having studied classics at Oxford, he began his career as a trainee at the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1950. Progressively senior appointments followed at Glasgow, Southampton and Newcastle upon Tyne Universities before his appointment as the University Librarian, Bath.

In these formative years he was already displaying traits which would help shape his future successes: seeking solutions through study and research, focussing on the needs of users, making library catalogues easier to construct and use, trying to shift attitudes within the profession from custodians of information to providers of information, and recognizing that automation had an important role to play in better managing resources and providing services.

Whilst at Bath, he was invited to lead a study into the scope for automated data processing in the planned British Library. In 1971, he was appointed head of the National Central Library (NCL) and as a member of the British Library Organising Committee, which undertook preparatory work for the U.K.’s new national library, which was to open in July 1973.

The British Library brought together many hitherto disparate organisations including the British Museum Library, National Library for Science and Invention, NCL, National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLLST, based in Boston Spa, Yorkshire) and British National Bibliography to form one of the world’s greatest libraries.

Line became Deputy Director General of the British Library Lending Division (later to be the British Library Document Supply Centre) at Boston Spa, which brought together the NCL and NLLST. He became Director General following the retirement of Dr. Donald Urquhart in 1974, a post he held until 1985 when he became Director General, Science Technology and Industry until his retirement from the Library in 1988.

It is difficult to overstate Line’s achievements in helping to merge the NCL and the NLLST, and then moulding and leading the Lending Division into becoming one of the most important and pervasive library facilities in the world, lending and providing photocopies of millions of items each year to universities, companies, and research organisations across the globe. As a member of the British Library Board from 1974 to 1988, he played a key role in combining services for humanities, sciences, and social sciences, and in developing a radical forward–looking outlook, which quickly helped to make the youthful British Library a huge success.

It was a time when his intellect, indefatigable energy and courage were deployed to the full. Of course, a task of this magnitude could not be done without ruffling a few feathers. He was constantly challenging orthodoxy and generating ideas, not all of which were shared by his colleagues. Despite his formidable debating skills from time to time his ideas failed to prevail. Yet rarely did this change his conviction and more often than not, he was later shown to be right.

He abhorred pomposity and verbosity and was always clear not to confuse solemnity and seriousness. Humour was a key component of his character, whether speaking or writing, making him much in demand as a conference speaker despite a speech impediment which over the years he mostly overcame. Because of his prolific written output (numerous books and over 140 professional journal articles), he will continue to influence the library profession around the world well into the future and rightly be considered a great communicator.

As a manager, Line was a great advocate of delegation and staff involvement. Well aware of the shortcomings of human nature, Line had a gift for attracting loyal staff who would find him compassionate and fair, though they wouldn’t necessarily see some of his references. One subordinate remained puzzled when Line described him thusly: “Mr A is not a born leader yet, a man of hidden shallows.”

Line was strongly committed to international library collaboration. He created and for many years led the IFLA’s Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) programme, which influenced library developments throughout the world. The UAP programme and the Office for International Lending (OIL) were, for many years, hosted by the British Library. Under Line’s leadership, the UAP program and the OIL developed the International Interlending Voucher Scheme. This scheme makes it easy for libraries to pay for their international interlending requests by using vouchers instead of money. While both the UAP programme and the OIL were closed on 31 March 2003, a number of their activities have been continued through the IFLA Document Delivery and Interlending Section. The Voucher Scheme is still available through the IFLA Headquarters in The Hague.

In addition to his regular duties, Line was a much sought–after consultant. He was held in particularly high regard in the United States, Australia, and Scandinavia where he contributed to the development of university and national library policies, and helped shape a generation of librarians.

Following his retirement from the British Library Line worked as a consultant specialising in the management of change. He carried out over fifty consultancies in sixteen different countries some of which tested his abilities to foster delegation. To quote one of his observations, “... in one or two cases I left an enthusiastic and motivated staff under a boss who was simply unable to change.”

In his spare time, Line was an enthusiastic walker — indeed his speed of walking was legendary, and was the subject of much amusement to his exhausted colleagues. He was highly knowledgeable about classical music and listened to it with passion. He had strong political commitment, and joined the short–lived Social Democratic Party. After retirement, he played a very active role in the University of the Third Age, until he succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease.

He loved dancing, and put his skills into practice at conferences and social events around the world, leaving lasting memories for his dance partners. He described his enthusiasm by recalling a conference in Essen. “At an Essen conference some twelve years ago, the entertainment consisted of some German belly–dancers. I selfishly elected to dance with the one with the least belly and the best dancing.”

He was an editor of two journals: Interlending and Document Supply and Alexandria, a journal concerned with national libraries. He was a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute, Fellow of Birmingham Polytechnic, and Honorary Fellow of the Library Association, which further honoured him with its Presidency in 1990. He received honorary degrees from Heriot–Watt University (D.Litt) and Southampton University (D.Sc) He was awarded the IFLA Medal in 1989. He was a Professor Associate at Sheffield University and an External Professor at Loughborough University.

Maurice Bernard Line died on 21 September 2010 aged eighty–two. He is survived by a son and a daughter. Sadly, his wife (and sometimes co–editor) Joyce survived him by only months. Librarianship has been fortunate in having such an outstanding exponent of its art and science at a critical time in its development. Colleagues from around the world will mourn him.

About the author

David Russon worked for many years with Maurice Line at the British Library and succeeded him as Director General for Science, Technology and Industry.

© 2012 David Russon.