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Ernest Roland Pitt (1877–1957)

by Margery C. Ramsay

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Ernest Roland Pitt (1877-1957), librarian, was born on 16 October 1877 at Strathloddon, Victoria, eighth child of Irish-born parents Mark Augustine Pitt, schoolmaster, and his wife Kate Mary, née Gibson. Henry Arthur Pitt was an elder brother. Ernest matriculated from St Patrick's College, Melbourne and with his twin brother Herbert (d.1906), began to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. He abandoned his course when he failed third year, and joined the staff of the Public Library of Victoria in April 1900. On 17 April 1907 at the Carmelite Church, Middle Park, he married Kathleen Buxton; they had two sons and a daughter. He graduated B.A. in 1910.

Responsible for the library's periodicals, Pitt edited the Catalogue of Current Periodicals Received at the Public Library of Victoria (1905). Subsequent experience in helping T. S. Hall with the second edition of his Catalogue of the Natural Science and Technical Periodicals in the Libraries in Melbourne (1911), and in reference work and cataloguing (1906-20), fostered a lasting interest in improving service to readers through inter-library co-operation.

In 1928, after several years in charge of the lending library and as assistant librarian, Pitt was seconded to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to edit Australia's first major union list, the Catalogue of the Scientific and Technical Periodicals in the Libraries of Australia (1930), a remarkable work for its day. The second edition (1951), of what later became Scientific Serials in Australian Libraries, was edited by Pitt in his retirement.

Pitt succeeded R. D. Boys as chief librarian and secretary to the Public Library, museums and National Gallery in 1931. In 1934 Ralph Munn, director of the Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, United States of America, named him as his preferred partner for the epoch-making Munn-Pitt survey, Australian Libraries (1935). Munn's choice of Pitt, rather than W. H. Ifould, his senior colleague from New South Wales, although controversial, was widely approved, because Pitt was not only well informed, with substantial experience, but was uncommitted on the sensitive issue of government aid to subscription libraries and the rivalry between the Mitchell and National libraries.

After studying public library development overseas in 1935, Pitt delivered in 1939 a presidential address to the Australian Institute of Librarians, State Aid to Libraries. He also chaired the Library Service Board, appointed reluctantly by the government in 1940 to make recommendations on library development in Victoria. The separation of the library, museums and gallery, recommended in the board's 1944 report, was effected in 1945 and, with a change of government, an enabling Act for municipal libraries was passed in 1946.

Pitt was president of the Library Association of Victoria (1930-32), the Library Association of Australia (1933) and the Australian Institute of Librarians (1939), and spoke at many of their conferences. He was elected fellow of the Library Association (United Kingdom) in 1939.

Pitt's important contributions to union affairs are detailed in the Public Service Journal of Victoria. He was made a life member of the Victorian Public Service Association in 1942. He held many positions at State level, was president of the Australian Public Service Federation (1925-26), and president of the Australian Public Servants' Association (1923-27). Most notably, he was president of the joint superannuation committee (1922-26), which achieved a contributory superannuation scheme for Victorian public servants, and served as elected member on the Superannuation Board of Victoria in 1929-35. He was also Victorian secretary for the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (A.N.Z.A.A.S.) in 1922-51.

Pitt was a reticent man, cool and formal, but with an underlying geniality and dry wit. Some of his colleagues reacted adversely to his manner, his refusal to be hurried, and his deliberate approach, but he was widely respected for his broad and liberal outlook, logical mind and thoroughness.

That Pitt's achievements within the library were modest is scarcely surprising. His term of office as chief librarian (1931-43) coincided with the Depression and World War II. He was burdened with the joint secretaryship, severe shortages of money and staff, and unsympathetic governments; and in developing public libraries he was hampered by the entrenched mechanics' institutes and, after the death of Frank Tate, by the lack of a strong Free Library Movement. Nevertheless his achievements, make him unquestionably one of Australia's greatest librarians.

Predeceased by his wife, Pitt died at Camberwell on 28 June 1957, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Cunningham, The Australian Council for Educational Research and Library Services in Australia (Melb, 1961)
  • N. Horrocks, The Carnegie Corporation of New York and its Impact on Library Development in Australia (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1973)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, Solid Bluestone Foundations and Other Memories of a Melbourne Girlhood 1908-1928 (Melb, 1983)
  • Public Service Journal of Victoria, 35, no 2, Dec 1943, p 20
  • Australian Library Journal, 6, no 3, July 1957, p 116
  • D. McVilly, A History of the State Library of Victoria, 1853-1974 (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1974)
  • C. A. McCallum, Looking Back—the Public Library of Victoria, 1919-1960 (manuscript, State Library of Victoria)
  • Australian Council for Educational Research Archives (Hawthorn, Melbourne)
  • CSIRO Archives (Canberra)
  • personal private information.

Citation details

Margery C. Ramsay, 'Pitt, Ernest Roland (1877–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


16 October, 1877
Strathloddon, Victoria, Australia


28 June, 1957 (aged 79)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.