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Story: McEwan, William Barker

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McEwan, William Barker



This biography, written by Anna Rogers, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

The man who was to become Dunedin's first public librarian was born at Edinburgh, Scotland, on 17 December 1870. William Barker McEwan was the son of journeyman stonemason William McEwan and his wife, Mary Barker. Educated at a George Heriot school, William left at the age of 14 to become apprenticed to bookseller Robert Somerville of Stockbridge. In 1888 he moved on to work for one of Edinburgh's largest booksellers, McNiven and Wallace, as assistant librarian of their circulating library, the West End Book Club. In 1896 he was promoted to chief librarian. On 16 June that year, in Edinburgh, McEwan married 23-year-old shirtmaker Elizabeth Stanners McArthur, of Leith.

McEwan's career as a public librarian began in 1903 when he became the first chief librarian of the public library in Stirling. He created the library, choosing, classifying and cataloguing more than 10,000 books. He resigned in 1906 when he and his wife emigrated to New Zealand for the sake of Elizabeth's health. McEwan was employed for some time by the Auckland booksellers Upton and Company, but when he applied for the post of city librarian in Dunedin on 2 April 1908 he was working in Westport as a clerk and storekeeper. He won the job over 68 other applicants, taking up his duties in late May 1908.

Although the Carnegie Free Public Library (soon to be known as the Dunedin Public Library) had been completed in December 1907, the new building in Moray Place was an empty shell. McEwan rose to the challenge; six months later, on 2 December 1908, the reading room was opened to the public, offering a remarkable range of New Zealand and overseas newspapers and periodicals. While organising and stocking this first section of the library, McEwan was also purchasing books for the reference department, finding furniture, having interior fittings installed and appointing staff.

McEwan drew together a book committee, made up of well-known Dunedin men who, by 1909, had compiled a list of books for the reference library, which opened in November that year with 2,700 volumes. The committee continued to advise on book buying. McEwan expanded the library, adding titles to the foundation stock and, in March 1910, opening a children's library. A 7,000-title adult lending library opened in July of the following year.

Building up the library's stock, especially in the reference area, became McEwan's mission in life. By March 1911 he had added nearly 2,000 titles, including special editions of Scott, Dickens and Meredith, and over the years he continued to buy valuable editions of such authors as Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. By 1912 a wing had been added to the library and the New Zealand section was growing steadily.

It was thanks to McEwan's reputation that the public library, rather than the University of Otago's Hocken Library, became the home for the fine 4,000-item New Zealand collection of Dr Robert McNab; what became known as the McNab collection was formally opened in March 1914. Other significant collections begun under McEwan's stewardship were a rare archive of First World War troopship magazines and, later, the Alfred and Isabel Reed collection of donated books and Reed's own range of autograph letters.

During his almost 25 years of service, McEwan ensured that the library's influence reached into the community. Public lectures on books were held and special literary occasions celebrated, and in 1932 a series of local history publications was established. McEwan was an enthusiastic founding member of the Libraries Association of New Zealand, which held its inaugural meeting in Dunedin in 1910; he later spoke at association conferences, where his contributions were highly regarded. McEwan was responsible, too, for establishing a school library service in the region. In March 1928 five local schools received the first boxes of the School Travelling Library. Eventually, almost all Dunedin city schools were supplied with books.

As a great lover of the literature of his native Scotland, and a passionate advocate for the Scots dialect, McEwan gave many public addresses, particularly on Burns and Scott, to Burns clubs and Scottish societies. He was an honoured member of the Dunedin Burns Club (he was president for five years), and set part of the library aside as a Burns corner. A prominent Freemason, McEwan was also a keen follower of cricket and football.

When he died at Dunedin on 2 May 1933 William Barker McEwan was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, four sons and two daughters. An astute and assiduous buyer of books, McEwan created, from four bare walls, a widely respected library of more than 50,000 volumes, including several nationally significant collections. Scholarly, principled and devoted to his work, he did much to promote the cause of libraries beyond the city he came to call home.

How to cite this page:

Anna Rogers. 'McEwan, William Barker', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m6/mcewan-william-barker (accessed 12 December 2023)