Ernest John Bell, 1885?-1971

Ernest J Bell and three other men in Canterbury Public Library Younger Members' section

Ernest J Bell and three other men in Canterbury Public Library Younger Members’ section

The appointment of E.J. Bell as chief librarian in 1913 ushered in a new era of modern library service at Canterbury Public Library. Ernest Bell was an English trained librarian who devoted 38 years to the library and his innovations and improvements of service were many. He was the library’s first professional chief librarian and remains its longest serving.

An Innovative Librarian

When Ernest Bell retired in 1951 he could look at many major changes he had introduced to improve library services. Membership of the library had risen from under 900 subscribers to over 6000, while issues had increased from 96,000 volumes per year to over 300,000. Children’s library members had increased from around 400 to 3500. The collection had been fully catalogued using the Dewey system, the children’s and reference libraries were greatly expanded, and a music library, a technical library and New Zealand and Canterbury collections established. Many more staff had been employed, services were offered to country and suburban libraries, and the library had developed a reference service, answering enquiries from around New Zealand and overseas.

Bell was a great believer in publicising the services of the library: among his innovations was a twice-weekly children’s radio session in the 1920s, regular talks and book reviews on the radio station 3YA, and the publication of the Canterbury Public Library Journal from 1935. In 1948, after decades of wrangling and negotiation, responsibility for the public library was finally handed over to the Christchurch City Council by the board of Canterbury College, and the library’s financial management became a charge on rates. Before his retirement, Bell had the satisfaction of seeing the sum of £15,000 allocated to the first major modernisation and expansion of the library’s buildings since his appointment, and in April 1951, the renovations, including a new children’s library, a new reference library, new staff offices and an enlarged lending library, all with new fittings and lighting, were officially opened.

Early Life and Career

Bell was born about 1885 in Richmond, Surrey, England to John Bell, a carpenter and joiner, and his wife, Betsy (nee Armstrong). In his youth, Bell showed considerable talent as an artist and hoped to pursue a career as an architect. Limited opportunities in this profession, however, meant he had to take whatever employment offered, and so in November 1899, he became a junior library assistant at Richmond Public Library, working from 9am until 9pm each day for a wage of five shillings a week. In 1901, he was appointed as an assistant in the Hammersmith Public Libraries in West London, and in 1903 he became the senior library assistant at Fulham, a network of five public libraries. By this time, he had passed the examinations for and been awarded the English Library Association’s certificate of proficiency.

Bell resigned from Fulham in 1911, saying that he wanted to travel. He sailed for Auckland, where he took a position with a local bookseller. In the evenings, he worked for the Auckland University, cataloguing their collections. Bell moved south to Christchurch in 1913, becoming chief librarian at the Public Library in June of that year. On 10 February 1915, he married Dorothy Alice Ell, the daughter of local MP and conservationist, Henry Ell. The couple had three children, a daughter born in 1916, and two sons, born in 1919 and 1923. They lived in the librarian’s house, attached to the library complex on Cambridge Terrace.

Becoming City Librarian

Bell inherited a library which, as he said, had a membership of less than 900 subscribers, a poorly planned building with inadequate lighting, and far too few staff for the work required. Within a month of his appointment, he had begun cataloguing the entire book stock, using the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme. At the same, he carried out a thorough weed to remove outdated works, rearranged the collections to make them more accessible, began displays of new books, and introduced special collections of material on topics of current interest, which changed regularly. Within a year, electric lighting had replaced gas.

In 1916, the Reference Library, which included dictionaries and encyclopedias, was overhauled, and in 1918, a technical library department, featuring scientific, technical and commercial publications, was established. By October, “splendid use” was being made of these collections. Bell also began to collect music scores, noting these were very popular in British libraries, and in 1921, he created a “local collection”, which included over 3000 books and pamphlets relating to Christchurch and Canterbury. His goal, he said, was to collect everything published locally, as well as material from the rest of the New Zealand. Among his recent acquisitions, he mentioned the 1908 Who's who, and works by Lady Barker, Alan Mulgan, Thomas Cholmondeley, and Henry Petre. In 1922, he began a collection of works in Braille for blind readers.

Services to Children

Ernest Bell was passionate about the provision of services to children and worked to ensure the Children's Library was professionally staffed and was free to use. In one of his first interviews after his appointment, he called the development of children’s libraries in Britain one of the most notable advances in the profession. Children, he said, were the readers of the future, and libraries had a role in helping with their education, as well as improving their general knowledge and teaching them to appreciate the best books. Although a children’s department had been opened in 1909, Bell planned to expand it and to appoint specialist staff. In 1917, the service became free for children aged 10-15 years, with a small fee for those aged 15-17. In June 1925, the first story hour was held, attended by over a hundred children who were told stories by Miss Elliott, the venture having been spurred on by the “enthusiasm and sympathy of … Mr E. J. Bell”. The following year, Miss R. Ray was appointed as children’s literary adviser, and in 1928, class visits from local secondary schools began, with students being offered instruction in the use of reference works and other books.

A Radio Pioneer

Bell’s interest in the needs of children extended beyond the library world. He was already in 1925, according to one of his library assistants, Edna Pearce, a “veteran of radio, a most enthusiastic ‘ham’ .. his face would light up with excitement …” as he told colleagues about stations he had listened to the previous evening. So when he heard a children’s session on a Sydney radio station in 1925, he thought “it would be great if we could get one started here”. Accordingly, he and Miss Pearce, as “Aunt Edna and Uncle Jack”, began broadcasting on a voluntary basis twice a week on 3YA, with stories, plays, poems and songs. Later they did live shows with children; according to Miss Pearce, Bell “knew just how to reach the children’s minds … lovingly holding a tiny ‘guest artist’ … too small to reach the microphone”1. He continued these sessions until the early 1930s, when the pressure of library work as well as the demands of the increasingly popular programme led him with great reluctance to hand over the reins.

Library Services for All

Bell was anxious that public library services should be available to all New Zealanders, not just those who lived in urban areas. As early as 1920, he set up “travelling libraries”, boxes of books which were sent to country districts like Darfield, Mayfield, Culverden and Hinds, and changed every four months. He was actively involved in the development of the Country Library Service in the 1930s, and travelled frequently to smaller libraries around the South Island, offering advice and encouragement to librarians in Nelson, Marlborough, and on the West Coast. He campaigned strenuously for making public libraries free, rather than by subscription, arguing that nothing could be better for people than to be able to borrow books freely. He pointed out that Dunedin Public Library, one of only two free libraries in New Zealand, had twice as many readers as Canterbury, as well as a much larger book stock.

In 1933, he was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship which enabled him to tour the United States and Canada to study public library services in those countries. Bell’s dreams were finally realised in 1948, when the City Council took responsibility for the public library, which in the future would be funded from rates. Although charges for borrowing popular books remained, readers no longer had to be subscribers to use the library. Bell also had strong views on book censorship, noting that censorship “should be applied only with the greatest respect and caution”; it was not the function of libraries to impose arbitrary restrictions on adult borrowers2.

Bell was very much aware of the need to publicise public library services in order to ensure that libraries were the places of choice for those needing information and recreation. “We want [people] to feel that the public library is their friend”, he told a NZ Library Association conference in 1938. Accordingly, he made wide use of the media, reporting regularly about library projects and successes in local newspapers. He and his staff began broadcasting about books on 3YA in 1927, their talks always leading to increased borrowing of the titles reviewed. The talks were also used as buying guides by many smaller libraries. From 1930, Bell wrote a weekly book review in the Star newspaper, and in 1935, the monthly Canterbury Public Library Journal began publication, offering information about books and authors as a guide in the selection of reading matter. Bell also organised exhibitions at the library, among them a “splendid” display of New Zealand books in 1936, and an exhibition about five hundred years of printing in November 1940.

Bell was actively involved in the New Zealand Library Association from its inception, serving as an executive member and secretary in the early, challenging years of the 1920s. He was the Association’s President in 1937/38 and one of the vice-presidents the following year. He was also a Fellow of the Library Association, London and an active member of the Canterbury Library Association.

Retirement Years

Bell retired from the library in August 1951. He and his wife moved to a house in Marine Parade, New Brighton. His devotion to library work had never allowed him time for many private interests, but apart from his enthusiasm for radio (he was overjoyed to be asked to broadcast again on “Town and Around” when he was aged over 80), he played bowls with the United Club and was a patron of the Canterbury Men’s Basketball Association. He was also interested in cricket, swimming and football. Bell died on 26 March 1971.

Bell was a “tall, upright, courteous gentleman”, who, according to Edna Pearce, loved his fellow men, especially children. He was “one of the ablest men at his profession in the country”3, a man whose knowledge of books gave great pleasure to many. At the time of his retirement, he noted that reading was his chief recreation. His long service meant that he became the senior chief librarian in New Zealand, with many other senior librarians around the country having worked with and been trained by him.


  1. 1. “Aunt Edna and Uncle Jack, radio pioneers”, Pegasus post, 18 August 1976, p. 13
  2. 2. Star, March 1930
  3. 3. “Aunt Edna and Uncle Jack, radio pioneers”, Pegasus post, 18 August 1976, p. 13


  • Canterbury Public Library. Newspaper clipping books, 1913-1951. 3v. Arch. 52
  • “Aunt Edna and Uncle Jack, radio pioneers”, Pegasus post, 18 August 1976, p. 13
  • Bell, E.J. “Canterbury Public Library from its founding to centennial year”, NZ libraries, v.13, no.9, Oct. 1950, p. 209-212.
  • Obituary, Christchurch Star, 27 March 1971
  • Church Register Index
  • Will, Archives NZ. Christchurch (Ch 601/1971)
  • “Ernest John Bell”, N.Z. Tatler, 25 Oct. 1933, p. 4.

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