Austin Graham Bagnall was born in Auckland on 30 November 1912, the only child of Charles Claude Bagnall, a farm manager at Kawhia, and his wife, Constance Margaret Austin, a governess. After the First World War the family moved to Glen Oroua near Rongotea, west of Palmerston North. Graham attended Essex House boarding school in Palmerston North in 1919–20, and then Glen Oroua school, where he won a Junior National Scholarship in 1925. This provided for him to board at Wellington College from 1926 to 1928, when, disliking the bullying in school life, he left and studied independently. He matriculated in 1931.
He went on to attend Victoria University College, in 1936 obtaining a BA and the following year, while working, a first-class honours MA degree in philosophy. Despite this personal academic success, he later seemed to have little respect for universities, possibly resulting from their lack of agreement with his own emphases in historical scholarship, and what he saw as sloppy research.
Bagnall’s wiry build led to success as a cross-country runner; at various times between 1932 and 1936 he was the College Harrier Club champion, a College and University of New Zealand blue, and a Wellington provincial representative. In 1935 he won the inter-club Vosseler Shield. He was also a keen tramper, and pioneered some routes with friends in the Tararua Tramping Club. Through the university tramping club he met his future wife, Dora Louise Hansmann, a teacher. By this time, after brief periods at the Dominion (as a ‘slushy’ and proofreader) and part-time at the Pensions Department while he was studying, Bagnall had begun his lifelong career as a librarian. He worked at the Alexander Turnbull Library from 1937 until 1941, being promoted to assistant librarian in 1939 after he became an associate of the Library Association (ALA) by completing the British professional library qualification that year by correspondence.
Graham and Dora were married in Palmerston North on 6 June 1938. They went to live at Mahina Bay, Eastbourne, on the steep gorsy hillside section overlooking Wellington harbour that would from then on be their home and which became a symbol of personal values and stability. The property was a focal point for the Bagnalls’ commitment to the land itself – they worked hard to revegetate it and transform it into a garden – and their strong family interests. They had a daughter and three sons.
Bagnall was seconded in 1941 into a non-uniformed role at the naval cipher office in Wellington, decoding messages relating to the war in the Pacific. After a short period in the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, in 1946 he returned to librarianship as the first head of the newly formed National Library Centre of the National Library Service, a position he held until 1966, including periods as acting director of the service. He was responsible for developing essential bibliographical resources and centralised services to support research and the growing number of libraries. These included the Union List of Serials and the Index to New Zealand Periodicals .
At the same time he began work on his most significant personal contribution to bibliographical scholarship, the epic New Zealand national bibliography to the year 1960 , which he compiled, edited and directed over more than 35 years. It was published in six volumes between 1970 and 1985. It includes details of over 32,000 books, and his pithy, knowledgeable annotations to entries for pre-1890 imprints will be an enduring contribution to New Zealand historical research resources. In 1971 the New Zealand Library Association presented him with its John Harris Award. Throughout his career Bagnall persistently advocated the formation of a strong and effective National Library that also provided within it an individual identity and role for the Alexander Turnbull Library.
The last seven years of Bagnall’s library career were as chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, an appointment which coincided with the creation of the National Library of New Zealand, of which the Turnbull Library became one part. For Bagnall the demands of administration competed for time and energy with his personal research interests, sometimes to his own sense of frustration. He retired in 1973. During this time he strengthened the library’s primary research resources by acquiring manuscripts and microfilms, and saw the establishment of a properly managed conservation programme. He also revived the Turnbull Library Record and was its editor from 1967 until 1976, developing it as a scholarly journal. In recognition of his contributions to bibliography, historical research and scholarship, Bagnall was appointed an OBE in 1978, and awarded an honorary LittD by Victoria University of Wellington in 1979.
Throughout his career Bagnall served the New Zealand Library Association at local and national levels, including a term as its president in 1964–65, and editor of New Zealand Libraries (1946–47). He also played a prominent part on the council of the Polynesian Society from 1939 to 1955 and, initially as the Library Association’s representative, as a founder board member of the National (later New Zealand) Historic Places Trust from 1955. He was reappointed to the board for several terms, and was deputy chairman from 1959 to 1966. He returned as an adviser to its publications committee from 1973 to 1981.
Bibliographical work stimulated and supported Bagnall’s private research in New Zealand history, and his publications ranged from a biography (with G. C. Petersen) of the missionary printer and botanist William Colenso, to an edition of the 1820 journal of Richard Cruise, and several publications on Wairarapa. He was commissioned in 1967 by the Masterton Trust Lands Trust to write Wairarapa: an historical excursion (published in 1976), for which he was awarded the J. M. Sherrard Award for regional history in 1979, a recognition that brought him great satisfaction. His historical writing is notable for the amount of detail he was able to incorporate, reflecting the persistence and care with which he worked on primary documentation. Okiwi (1972), his history of European settlement of the eastern bays of Wellington harbour, was a major family achievement: it was hand-typeset by Graham, printed on the family’s 1885 Peerless platen press by his son Charles, and over 50 of the copies were hand-bound by Dora. At the time of his death Bagnall was working on a major publication on the history of the Tongariro area. He had also begun work on a family history.
Bagnall built up a strong personal library of New Zealand historical works, now a special research collection at Massey University. An ardent collector of information, he filled notebooks and gathered newspaper clippings on topics of interest. AGB – as he was known to his colleagues – was noted for his quickness and energy, a breadth and detail of knowledge which few could match, and for speaking forthrightly when he disagreed with decisions or thought things were not being done properly. While he had practical skills and enjoyed travelling, especially in the course of historical research, he never learnt to drive. The music of Mahler was his strongest interest in the arts, and he also enjoyed reading biography.
Graham Bagnall died suddenly at Sydney airport on 16 April 1986 while returning from a holiday in Queensland. His funeral was held at Old St Paul’s, Wellington, and his ashes rest near a kauri he had planted many years before on the hillside by his home. He was survived by Dora and their children. Many of his papers are in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.