Libraries pioneer Marian Baker dies in Sydney
01 August 2021
| My Land, My Country
PORT MORESBY - Marian Lindsay Baker stepped off the New Guinea Australia Line’s MV Soochow in Fairfax Harbour and took a look around at what would be her home for the next 21 months.
The year was 1959 and with one hand shading her eyes from the glaring sun, Marian took in the surrounding hilly savannah landscape that was nothing like her home in Sydney.
At the age of 23, this was Marian’s first experience living abroad.
Before her lay the important task of establishing a Public Library Service in the colonial headquarters town of Port Moresby.
Someone in the bustling crowd waved and moved towards her. Marian’s new acquaintance wore a slightly baffled expression at the fresh arrival’s youthfulness.
On 9 July this year, Marian, aged 84, passed away quietly in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta where she had lived for many years.
The daughter of two school teachers Marian was born in the northern NSW town of Lismore in 1936.
An exceptional student, outstanding in Mathematics and French, she had been awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to study Psychology at Sydney University, hoping to become a school counsellor.
But she had dropped her initial plan and, when she graduated, enrolled in a newly-created course in Librarianship, becoming the youngest person at the time to qualify as a Librarian.
Presumably it was her outstanding scholarship that made her a suitable candidate to establish Papua New Guinea’s first public library, a job she took on with commitment and vigour.
A highly organised person, Marian’s pioneering work lives on in the National Library and Archives in Waigani and other public facilities in the nation’s capital.
Living in Touaguba Hostel, Marian was instrumental in training PNG’s first local librarians, including the late Belle Vagi from Hanuabada.
She was to have a work cycle of 21 months in Port Moresby and three months leave back home.
However, as fate would have it, Marian served only a single term from 1959 to 1960.
Something traumatic happened to Marian during that first term in Port Moresby.
Although the full details of this incident were never entirely shared by Marian, this troubling event would prevent her subsequent return to PNG and its consequences would affect most of her life back home.
Towards the end of her first leave in Sydney, Marian began to express reluctance about returning to PNG saying she “couldn’t face going back”.
Her brother, a trainee doctor, had Marian admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she underwent electroshock therapy - a fashionable treatment in that era.
Sadly, each session made her condition worse. She described it as “coming back with less and less each time.”
Once a fine pianist who would play at a club for handicapped people in Parramatta, Marian’s musical abilities slowly ebbed away with each electroshock treatment until she could not play at all.
Although later she was able to work, her condition and the stigma surrounding mental illness greatly affected her chances of a rewarding career.
When Sydney University set up a School of General Practice Medicine, Marian helped establish its library. She also briefly worked as a Cobol programmer in the Commonwealth Bank, but was denied a permanent position because of her psychiatric history.
Nevertheless, Marian managed to again find work at the new Macquarie University in north-west Sydney. Its library was the first in Australia to adopt the Library of Congress system instead of the Dewey Decimal system, and she was one of the few librarians who managed this transition.
Her family says that Marian will be remembered for getting in touch - every birthday and every Christmas - with everyone in her extended family, distant cousins, long-separated friends and everyone she had ever encountered.
Even though she spent such a short time in PNG, Marian made an important contribution in establishing that Public Library Service, which benefitted Papua New Guineans and expatriates then as it continues to do today.
Marian loved her work in PNG where she also carefully catalogued many historic images of Port Moresby and people and other places in PNG.
Marian’s family has kindly requested whether anyone in PNG or abroad who knew and worked with her in Port Moresby could share any stories and memories of Marian with them.
The family will also be very grateful for any condolence messages from PNG and elsewhere to celebrate her life and work.
As the person tasked with helping Marian’s family to research and collect her stories in PNG, I have grown very interested and somewhat fond of Marian and her life.
As a Papua New Guinean who loves books and libraries, I feel indebted for Marian’s life and work in PNG, and also to other pioneer librarians, both national and expatriate, who have helped bring literacy, reading and education to PNG.
If you or someone you know has any stories or information to share, I can be contacted at my email, firstname.lastname@example.org
May Marian Lindsay Baker’s Soul Rest in Eternal Peace.
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