Page 1: Biography
Dunningham, Archibald George William
This biography, written by W. J. McEldowney, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Archibald George William Dunningham, one of the founders of modern librarianship in New Zealand, was born in Napier on 26 April 1907, the son of William Dunningham, a club steward, and his wife, Mary Marshall Thomson. He was educated at Wellington College and Victoria University College, graduating BA in 1931.
In 1929 Archie Dunningham became an assistant in the General Assembly Library. Here he formed a friendship with another young assistant, Alister McIntosh, with whom he worked closely on library development even after McIntosh had moved to the Prime Minister’s Department. Dunningham moved to the Wellington Public Library as deputy chief librarian in 1932, but in 1933 was appointed city librarian in Dunedin. A fellowship granted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York enabled him to study at the University of Michigan library school and to observe libraries in the United States.
On his return to Dunedin, Dunningham embarked on a programme that quickly made the public library a model for New Zealand librarians to follow. He had inherited a sound book collection from his predecessor, W. B. McEwan, and on this legacy he built a service based on the availability of the widest possible range of books, to which the citizens responded enthusiastically. He worked with the Otago Education Board to develop a school library service, and with the Otago Hospital Board to provide a service to patients. He paid attention to the need for professional staff development and was quick to see the role of automation in releasing staff energies for service to the public. His innovations attracted the interest of G. T. Alley, soon to be the founding director of the Country Library Service, who owed a great deal to both Dunningham and McIntosh in the early stages of his own work. Later, from 1942 to 1946, Dunningham, in the rank of captain, headed the library branch of the Army Education and Welfare Service, which continued the work of the War Library Service initiated by Alley in 1939.
On 8 April 1938, at Wellington, Dunningham married Margaret (Peggy) Mathie Macdonald, an honours graduate in history and a librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library. She joined him as a noteworthy member of Dunedin’s literary and artistic circles. Her work in adult education complemented her husband’s use of the library for lectures and exhibitions.
Archie Dunningham was an active member of the New Zealand Library Association, and was a member of its council, off and on, from 1935 to 1958, including a term as president in 1956. His particular interests were in standards of public library service, national book resources and co-operative systems for their economical use, and education for librarianship. He was a strong advocate of regional development of the national library system, urging devolution to an extent that colleagues such as Alley found unwise and impractical. Disagreements over this matter led to some sharp exchanges in a profession which was then in a missionary phase, but the protagonists agreed on the fundamental principles that library resources should be strengthened and that citizens, no matter where they lived, should have ready access to them. Dunningham’s role was that of a stimulating generator of ideas, while the job of others was to keep his feet near the ground.
In 1953 Dunningham spent a year in Indonesia as a UNESCO library adviser. His work there was warmly appreciated and led to his being asked to undertake similar work in both Indonesia and India in 1955 and from 1959 to 1966. He retired from his Dunedin position in 1960. During their Asian years Archie and Peggy Dunningham immersed themselves in the cultural life of their host countries, and Peggy’s collections of craft material are now housed in the Auckland Museum and in the Otago Museum. After their return to New Zealand they settled in Point Wells, near Warkworth, where they had family interests; Peggy spent part of her time in Wellington, where she lectured in Asian studies at the university. Archie died at home on 16 April 1996; Peggy had predeceased him in 1974. Their only child, a daughter, died in a tragic accident in 1963.
In 1955 the NZLA had elected Dunningham as one of its first five fellows. Almost 30 years later G. T. Alley, his old friend and sparring partner, said of him, ‘one thinks of the very many good things he gave: his presence, his attractive personality, his very, very great contribution to library thought, library education’.