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Donald Whaley, 1933-2013

Donald Whaley

Donald Whaley

23 October 2013

Donald Whaley, retired librarian in the School of Geographical Sciences from 1969 to 1998, died in a traffic accident in September 2013 at the age of 80. His colleagues Edward Thomas and Peter Haggett recall his life.

Generations of Geography graduates have reason to be grateful to Donald Whaley. Formally he was librarian of the Geography Department Library for almost 30 years, but informally he was much more than that. As an undergraduate advisor and confidante he provided a stream of advice on background reading for students working on their weekly essay, term paper or dissertation. During his long tenure he must have seen well over a thousand students come to him for advice of some kind. He had a profound knowledge of the material in his collection and a shrewd judgment of what a particular lecturer might demand.

Don was the first formally-qualified librarian to be appointed to the Department.  He took over a somewhat idiosyncratic collection of books and journals accrued since 1920 and previously housed in a partitioned area at the back of the Hepple Lecture Theatre. He saw it grow to be a major University branch library, re-housed within the 1879 University College building. The new library had previously served successively as a pillared engineering, dental and cartographic laboratory. Under Professor Peel’s imaginative plans for the war-damaged building, it became a purpose-fitted library with a succession of reading carrels on a mezzanine floor and additional rooms to house specialist journals and the atlas collection. This was Don’s empire, and over the years he saw its collection double and double again, nursed in new information technologies, coped with ever-growing student numbers, and trained assistant staff.

Don was born and grew up in Penzance, Cornwall, where his mother’s family were coopers, making barrels for the then thriving pilchard industry. His family moved to Bristol at the outbreak of  World War II. He studied at Cotham Grammar School and worked briefly for an organ-building firm in Bristol before joining the University at age 17 as a library assistant in the Wills Building. In 1967 he left for Loughborough University to study librarianship and gain his ALA qualification; two years later he returned to the University and began his work in the Geography Department.

Outside the library, Don’s great love in life was organ music. He had been brought up in the Methodist musical tradition and his family contained several soloists and organists of repute. In Bristol he became organist for the Horfield United Reformed Church, a position he retained for nearly half a century. He was the longest-serving member of the Bristol and District Organists’ Association (BDOA) and wrote a number of papers on the history of important church organs within the city, notably his book on 19th-century organ-building in Bristol. He took particular pleasure in rising to the challenge of playing on an unfamiliar instrument in a new church or chapel. He was a regular member of the BDOA’s expeditions which visited churches in a different European country each summer, playing organs in turn at some of the great churches of Germany, Holland or Poland. It was returning from such a visit to Romania that Don met his death as a passenger in a car accident on the M4. 

Don was a man who turned aside praise and was embarrassed to be singled out for any acknowledgment. But in the University, as in his church, and in his organ playing, he showed a devotion, faithfulness and single-mindedness that touched others profoundly. But we think he would also have wanted it known that he found both organ-playing and librarianship thirsty work! Characteristically, his knowledge of Bristol pubs, their histories and their Real Ales was extensively and thoroughly researched.

Libraries lie at the core of universities, and Don’s contribution to this corner of the University was both singular and sustained over the decades. He will be as greatly missed by all those he helped over the years as by his library and Departmental colleagues. We send both our gratitude and our sympathy to his family in Cornwall and in Western Australia.   



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