Guy Hardy Scholefield was born at Dunedin on 17 June 1877, the third child of John Hoick Scholefield, an accountant, and his wife, Marion Hardy. His father died in 1885, and the family moved to Milton, South Otago. Guy's secondary education was at Tokomairiro District High School. He was influenced by his mother's appreciation of literature and was a frequent borrower of books from the Milton Athenaeum.
Scholefield's first job, at 16, was as apprentice compositor and journalist on the Bruce Herald. He then worked as a clerk at the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company but continued to contribute regularly to papers and periodicals. In 1899 he joined the staff of the New Zealand Times, Wellington, and two years later transferred to the literary side of the paper. The Times encouraged him to continue writing articles about early New Zealand personalities and events, which were published in various newspapers throughout the country. He later wrote: 'They were halcyon days for the literary-minded journalist. No other paper gave the poet or the writer more freedom and encouragement.'
Scholefield's work as a journalist brought him into contact with men of note such as Richard Seddon, Robert Stout and John Hall, and with former provincial politicians. In 1901 he joined the parliamentary press gallery. He also enrolled as a part-time student at Victoria College and continued his studies at Canterbury College while working as associate editor of the Christchurch Press in 1903–4.
A 'pervading sense of being at the heart of things' brought Scholefield back to Wellington and the New Zealand Times where, in 1907, he was appointed chief of staff. In 1908, in association with Emil Schwabe, he edited Who's who in New Zealand and the western Pacific. This was the first of a series which Scholefield was to edit during his lifetime. He insisted that those included should have performed some definite service over and above what the individual was paid to do, but the entries primarily denote standing in the community.
Scholefield's first full-length historical work, New Zealand in evolution, based on articles he had written for his newspaper columns, was published in London in 1909. It is a survey of industrial development and social experiment, about which Scholefield was uncritical and optimistic. It was better received by British reviewers as an example of the progress of the 'Britain of the South' than it was in New Zealand, where the conservative press criticised its support for Liberal policies. From 1908 to 1919 Scholefield was London correspondent of the New Zealand Associated Press. Before taking up this appointment he married, at Wellington on 17 June 1908, Adela Lucy Stapylton Bree; they were to have two sons and a daughter. While in London Guy attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, graduating BSc in economics and political science in 1915 and DSc in 1919. The same year his doctoral thesis was published as The Pacific: its past and future.
During the First World War Scholefield was a war correspondent and was gazetted a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He toured the fleet bases, visited battlefields in France and was with the New Zealand Division in the breakthrough to the Rhine. He also founded and edited a newspaper, the New Zealander, to give news from home to expatriates serving in Britain. For his services as a war correspondent he was made an OBE in 1919. Scholefield and his family returned to New Zealand at the end of 1919. From 1921 to 1926 he was editor and director of Masterton's newspaper, the Wairarapa Age.
From May 1926 to March 1948 Scholefield was parliamentary librarian at the General Assembly Library. He was attracted by the prestige of owing allegiance 'not to a political party but, in a special manner, to the Dominion's highest court'. As well as parliamentary librarian, he was appointed dominion archivist. (At the time, New Zealand's archives were housed in the attic of the General Assembly Library.) He had already, in 1920, prepared a report on the country's archival deposit based on his London research in the Public Record Office, at Somerset House, and at the British Museum Library. He was conscious of the value of archives for research, stressing that 'The care of public records is in no sense a branch of librarianship, but rather a branch of the science of history.' Between parliamentary sessions he travelled throughout the country unearthing provincial and central government records, newspapers and private collections, and producing in 1929 a bulletin entitled Historical sources and archives in New Zealand.
The newspaper collection that Scholefield created at the General Assembly Library is his outstanding bequest to historical research, although he saw it simply as biographical source material. During his time in office he also edited A union catalogue of New Zealand newspapers (1938) and the New Zealand parliamentary record, 1840–1949 (1950). Both remain standard reference sources. Other publications during this period were a chapter on 'Social life and culture' in the New Zealand volume of the Cambridge history of the British Empire (1933), Captain William Hobson (1934), and, as editor, Reminiscences and recollections of Sir Harold Beauchamp (1937). In 1935 he received a Carnegie Corporation grant to travel to the United States and Canada to study the organisation of a national library and of national archives.
Scholefield was not forbidden to engage in journalism while parliamentary librarian but he felt that what he termed 'secular journalism', with its involvement in party politics, would be unseemly for a 'servant of parliament'. Instead, from the 1930s onwards, he steadily added to his biographical notes (gathered largely from newspaper obituaries and from his own correspondence) of notable New Zealanders with a view to publishing privately a dictionary of national biography. When the National Centennial Historical Committee was set up, Scholefield, a member of the committee, offered his own notes as the basis of an official publication, stating that he would be glad to be relieved of 'personal drudgery involved in the marketing of the book' and of any suspicion of 'importing anything into it which might suggest mercenary influences in the compilation'. His offer was accepted. For the completed two-volume Dictionary of New Zealand biography (1940) he received an honorarium of £300.
Scholefield's criteria for selection for the dictionary were similar to those for his Who's who. Men of note in the country's political and military history, including Maori leaders, and in its economic and intellectual development were acceptable, as were a sprinkling of women 'of particular prominence'. He did not intend the dictionary to be representative of the people of New Zealand, nor did he attempt any critical evaluation of his subjects, writing in the introduction: 'Because our history is so close at hand and because so many still living were the friends or admirers of the actors in it, a purely factual approach has been adopted.' In spite of Scholefield's desire for accuracy, errors were reported from the time of its publication. Nevertheless, it was one of the most acclaimed of the centennial publications.
It had been intended before publication that the dictionary should be a continuing work with supplements and corrigenda published at approximately 10-yearly intervals. Scholefield, having retired as parliamentary librarian in 1948, continued his research. By 1955 he was ready to go ahead with a third volume covering 1941–51, and he also expected another printing of the first two volumes, the original run of 2,000 having sold out. He requested a 'reasonable salary' for rendering a 'useful service to the Dominion' in publishing his third volume and editing Who's who.
By this time Scholefield was in his late 70s and, although his mana still held among his own contemporaries, to a younger generation of public servants his importunity became an increasing irritant. Furthermore, by late 1959 cabinet had approved the production of an encyclopaedia of New Zealand to be edited by the parliamentary historian, A. H. McLintock. There was no further 'moral obligation' on government, it was considered, to publish a new edition of the dictionary or to reprint the work. It was also decided that Scholefield could privately issue a supplement but had no right to reissue the published volumes. He was reluctantly offered £150 for his further notes and corrigenda. The earlier assurances about a continuing series provided some justification for Scholefield's feeling of being unfairly treated.
Scholefield continued to produce books of importance, including Notable New Zealand statesmen (1946), the lives of 12 prime ministers from J. E. FitzGerald to R. J. Seddon, and Newspapers in New Zealand (1958). Given his appreciation of newspapers as an archival record the latter is disappointing. It bristles with names but says little about newspaper policy or, in spite of Scholefield's many contacts, about journalists.
During Scholefield's term as parliamentary librarian, many of the voluminous papers of the Richmond and Atkinson families had been deposited in the General Assembly Library. Scholefield believed these to be 'the finest corpus of historical source material in the country'. On the recommendation of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee (of which he was chairman at the time) to the Department of Internal Affairs, which financed the project, he began editing the papers for publication. The massive two-volume Richmond–Atkinson papers (1960) was Scholefield's last publication. In some respects it was also an unfortunate one.
In his introduction to the published work Scholefield gave no clue to his method or his policy, except to state that 'mere gossipy passages' had been omitted. In the original papers these 'passages' were mostly written by women. As in all his books Scholefield was over-protective of his 'notables' so as not to give offence to the living or the dead. But the worst feature of his editing was the way in which he marked up original documents either by adding his own comments in ink or by deleting sections in indelible crayon. In a most revealing comment he explained that, with the publication of his volumes, students need no longer come to Wellington to 'grub through the original letters…The papers will be available in libraries everywhere.' But university-trained history students were now expected to 'grub' in original documents, and his unintentional vandalism was exposed. Nevertheless, the Richmond–Atkinson papers contains a vast quantity of interesting and significant material and is a useful guide to the original papers.
During his long life Scholefield was active in numerous learned societies and achieved public prominence. He was a member of the Hakluyt Society and a fellow (1920) of the Royal Historical Society. In New Zealand he was secretary of the national branch of the Institute of Pacific Relations (1926–34), foundation president of the national centre of PEN (1934–37), president of the New Zealand Library Association in 1940, and chairman of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee from 1948 to 1951. He was also instrumental in forming a short-lived New Zealand Historical Society in 1936, and always made his advice available to local societies. Scholefield made a career in broadcasting as a commentator on international affairs prior to the Second World War, as a book reviewer, and as a producer of historical programmes. He was appointed a CMG in 1948. His own papers, including an unpublished autobiography and novel, war diaries, and a voluminous correspondence, were bought by BP (New Zealand) Limited in 1961 and presented to the Alexander Turnbull Library. He died in Wellington on 19 July 1963, survived by his wife and children.
Guy Scholefield was a slightly built, unassuming, genial man whose stature was enhanced by his prodigious industry as a writer and commentator, and by the prestige he attached to the office of parliamentary librarian. He was known simply as 'the Doctor' – the 'busy Doctor', as one obituary stated. His life spanned a watershed in historiography. When he produced them his books were needed by students of New Zealand history and his reference books remain a first port of call. But the critical analysis, assessment and reassessment practised by a later generation of professional historians were not his tools of trade. He saw New Zealand as monocultural and progressive; in that light he aimed at making its history available, readable and encouraging.