Sir John Latham

SIR JOHN LATHAM (1877-1964). President 1950-1953.
Obituary in the Australian Library Journal, September 1964, p. 140 by John Metcalfe.

Sir John Latham died on July 25th 1964, just short of his eighty seventh birthday; he was the first president of the Library Association of Australia who was not a librarian, and held office 1950-51, 1952, 1953.

At its first establishment in 1937 the Association was called the Australian Institute of Librarians and except for a few laymen who were made honorary members for distinguished service to librarianship its membership was limited to professional and student membership. In 1950 the AIL became the LAA, including in its membership libraries as well as librarians, and persons associated with the administration of libraries or actively interested in the Association’s objects.

Sir John was a person actively interested in the objects of the Association,  for one thing he had been, from 1937, President of the Free Library Movement of  Victoria,  but he was a man of many other interests, and achievements, so much as to be the most generally and highly distinguished man to be the Association’s  president. And yet there was a unity of character and purpose in all that he did or said that made his presidency of the Association as much a part of his life’s work as anything else he did or became.

John Greig Latham was born in Ascot Vale,  Victoria on August 25th, 1877. When he became President of the Library Association in 1950 he was the Right Honorable Sir John Latham, Grand Commander of the Order of Michael and St. George, Master of Arts, master of Laws, Kings Counsel and a member of the Privy Council. He been Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Attorney-General of the Commonwealth, Minister for External  Affairs, and Deputy Prime Minister: he was leader of the Opposition 1929-1931,  but when the United Australia Party was formed he stood down in favour of a compromise leader, the Hon. J.A. Lyons who later became Prime Minister whilst Latham in 1935, became Commonwealth Chief Justice.  And it was on his retirement from the Chief Justiceship that he became President of our Association.

He fulfilled the Australian ideal in many ways; of comparatively poor parents he was in his education much the scholarship boy, until he was lecturing in the University of Melbourne in logic, philosophy and law, and became established at the bar. He also became a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve and a Major in the Citizen Military Forces. And he found time for sport, being Captain of the Victorian lacrosse team, and later President of the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association.  But he was never all things to all men.

ln accordance with his loyalties he was secretary to a conscription society in the early years of the war of 1914-18, and found himself in the opposite camp in this respect to John Curtin. At the same time he was a rationalist, and remained one although communist influences made it impossible for him to remain a member of the Victorian Rationalist Association in which he had been prominent.

In the Library Association and earlier in the Free Library Movement in Victoria he might seem to have been no more than the great man who graciously lends his name and occasionally his presence to a good cause, perhaps something more than a mere office collector and holder, but one who might still be unthinkingly called  a stuffed shirt. But neither plain John Latham nor the much honoured Sir John ever took any office in which he did not serve, and with much more than lip service. He did his homework.

It has been the custom to send out to members of the Association's General Council an agenda for its annual meeting with supporting documents amounting to a hundred pages or more. Sir John carefully studied them down to the last comma, as the marking of his copy showed, and he did this with any document referred to him as a counsellor and member of the executive. He thought about every matter submitted, with the ripe wisdom and the knowledge of law and procedure of a Chief Justice.

The Association remains richer by his living and poorer by his dying.