Dorothy Mary Neal was born in Christchurch on 22 December 1915, the daughter of Henry Joseph Neal, a tram conductor, and his wife, Florence Rhodes. She attended Avonside Girls’ High School and studied for a time at Canterbury College. In 1933 she became a library assistant at Canterbury Public Library. Her potential to become an outstanding librarian was recognised in her selection as one of two young New Zealand women to be awarded fellowships to train at the Carnegie Institute of Technology Library School, Pittsburgh, in 1936.
On her return in 1937 Dorothy Neal took up the position of children’s librarian at the Dunedin Public Library, determined to offer a collection and standards of service equal to those she had seen in the best libraries of North America. Given strong support by the city librarian, A. G. W. Dunningham, she soon developed a children’s library which became the New Zealand benchmark.
On 18 March 1939, at Warrington, north of Dunedin, she married a noted Dunedin second-hand-book seller, Richard (Dick) Desmond White, of Newbold’s bookshop. For some time she continued to work as Miss Neal because the city council required women to resign on marriage.
The years between 1937 and 1945 were extraordinarily productive. She had begun her lifelong work of promoting good books for children through reviews and other writing, and through talks, including radio broadcasts. The library service for Otago schools which she had set up in conjunction with the Otago Education Board later influenced the development of a national service to schools, and her annotated list of 2,000 books for children, compiled for the New Zealand Library Association in 1940, laid the foundation for many children’s collections.
Dorothy Neal White also established children’s librarianship as a serious field of professional study. Before the founding in 1946 of the New Zealand Library School (where in later years she was a visiting lecturer), she developed and administered a pioneering training course for children’s librarians. She also served on the New Zealand Library Association Council and for a brief period as editor of New Zealand Libraries .
After a period as acting deputy librarian at Dunedin Public Library from 1942, Dorothy Neal White was librarian at the Dunedin Training College from 1944 to 1945. It was at this time that she became a friend of Janet Frame, doing much to encourage her during her early years as a writer. From 1946 to 1956 she was occupied raising two daughters. Nevertheless, she produced two books which gained her an international reputation. About books for children (1946) was based on her experiences with both children and trainee librarians. This was followed in 1954 by Books before five , a personal account of introducing her elder daughter to books. An innovative work, it was quickly recognised as a classic. In 1957 Dorothy Neal White returned to the Dunedin Public Library as head of children’s services, a position she held until her retirement in 1974.
An independent and uncompromising thinker and an articulate and engaging speaker, White was also witty, charming and elegant. Throughout her life she maintained a broad range of interests and activities. From 1962 to 1969 she was the PEN New Zealand Centre representative on the Robert Burns Fellowship committee of the University of Otago. In 1966 she was president of the Otago branch of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration. She served on the diocesan committee of the Association of Anglican Women, and was a member of the regional committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust from 1976 to 1982. The trust awarded her an honorary life membership in 1987.
Dorothy Neal White’s lifelong conviction that only the best was good enough for children was matched by her ability to communicate her knowledge and enthusiasm to others. Her contribution to librarianship was recognised by her peers in 1957 when she was made a fellow of the New Zealand Library Association. Her particular achievements in putting library services to New Zealand children on a professional footing were honoured with the decision in 1980 by the National Library of New Zealand to name its collection of children’s books published prior to 1940 the Dorothy Neal White Collection. In 1994 she was awarded the Queen’s Service Order.
Widowed in 1967, Dorothy married a Dunedin doctor, Robert Edmund Ballantyne, on 27 December 1968. She died in Dunedin on 12 February 1995. Her second husband had predeceased her in 1991, and she was survived by her two daughters.