Alice Ethel Minchin was born at Waihou, Hokianga, on 5 November 1889, the second of three children of Charles Minchin, a settler at Rangiahua, and his wife, Edith Fennell. She went to Rawhia School, but when her father died in 1900 the farm was sold and her mother took the children to Cambridge, Waikato. Alice attended Prince Albert College, Auckland, from 1901 to 1904 and Cambridge District High School in 1905. Relatives in England sent for her to complete her education at Bath High School, where she spent two years, gaining the London matriculation in 1908. After returning to New Zealand she went to Auckland Training College. She then taught at Otumoetai School, near Tauranga, at Paeroa District High School and at Waihi East School.
In 1915 she was appointed cataloguer at Auckland Public Library at a salary of £100 a year. In 1918 she became the first librarian of Auckland University College at a salary of £150 a year, taking over from the registrar who had acted as librarian. The library was virtually uncatalogued, although in the 1912–13 vacation the librarian of Canterbury Public Library had compiled a list of the 6,097 titles, and when the council decided in 1917 to adopt the Dewey Decimal Classification system, H. L. James of the General Assembly Library had spent two weeks pencilling Dewey numbers into the books. Minchin applied herself to organising the library with characteristic diligence. Within a few years she had catalogued the entire collection, and Auckland University College library became the first fully catalogued and classified university library in New Zealand.
In 1926, after studying part time, Alice Minchin graduated BA. In 1927 the library was moved from its unsatisfactory housing in Symonds Street to the new Arts Building in Princes Street. Despite its 'many architectural defects from a functional viewpoint', Minchin found it 'a very light and pleasing place', although she deplored the inadequacy of the stack accommodation.
During the 1930s the four New Zealand university libraries were recipients of grants by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, subject to certain conditions: the librarians were to be sent to the United States for professional training; when qualified they were to be given academic status and salaries equivalent to those of lecturers; and they were to have administrative powers covering the whole library administration. A university degree was a prerequisite. With three other New Zealand librarians, Alice Minchin spent the academic year of 1932–33 as a Carnegie fellow at the University of Michigan school of library science in Ann Arbor, graduating bachelor of arts in library science. This was followed by visits to other institutions in the United States and elsewhere. On her return to Auckland Minchin submitted a report to the Auckland University College Council and later she presented a 10-year plan showing how the college could benefit from some of the practices she had observed.
Her salary was raised to £275 (a lecturer's was £400), but her request for an increase was refused by council. When Clifford Collins, librarian of Canterbury University College and one of the Carnegie fellows, discovered this, he wrote an angry letter to the Carnegie Corporation. The corporation made enquiries to which the college council replied that it had no intention of giving the librarian the salary and status of a lecturer. The corporation then refused to give the grant until all requirements had been met; after the council reluctantly complied, the first grant of £1,236 was received in 1936. Nevertheless, the council told Minchin that if in the future 'the administration deems it advisable to appoint a librarian of broader qualifications and wider experience, presumably a man, it would feel perfectly free to do so and to change your title to that of Associate Librarian'. She was the only female chief university librarian in New Zealand.
Minchin's years at Auckland University College were difficult and frustrating. Although her salary was raised, neither she nor her assistants received any increments, and her efforts on her own and their behalf were met by a curt refusal from the council. Inadequate funding for books meant that it was impossible to build up a collection worthy of a university library. Minchin had strong views on how a university library should be run, and these views were apt to bring her into conflict with the teaching staff, as, for instance, when professors were determined to retain books in their departments, making them unavailable to students.
The stresses of her 27 years in the library began to take a toll of her health in 1945, when she decided to take early retirement. However, she was asked to lecture for one year in classification and cataloguing at the newly established New Zealand Library School in Wellington. She agreed reluctantly, but nevertheless carried out her task conscientiously.
Minchin never married, but took responsibility for the three children of her sister, who died prematurely. She was involved with the New Zealand Library Association and contributed articles to its journal. She played golf and tennis, was interested in handcrafts and gardening, and was very hospitable. In the mid 1940s she devoted most of her spare time to working for the Society for Closer Relations with Russia. Alice Minchin died in Auckland on 26 July 1966.
Alice Minchin had been an extremely able librarian, but suffered for being a woman in what was then considered to be a man's job, and her ability was never recognised within the college. She was conscientious to a fault, and demanded high standards of her staff, whom she trained thoroughly. Both they and the students were in some awe of her stern and unbending persona. She was, however, a woman of great kindness and compassion, which was often hidden by a deep reserve. She had considerable charm, but this seldom showed within the college where she was usually tense, and apparently unable to relax. She left a legacy of first-class management for subsequent librarians to build on. Her successor, F. A. Sandall, said, 'All our records over the years of her administration show a clear and firm grasp of the best accepted principles of the time…The Library is still largely her achievement'.