7 September 1999
Organized a Nation's History William Kaye Lamb 1904 - 1999
Photo: William Kaye Lamb 1904 - 1999.
Historian, archivist and founder of the National Library of Canada. Born May 11, 1904, in New Westminster. Died Aug. 24, 1999, in Vancouver.
The visiting alumnus did not mince his words. "My fear is that the humanities will be crowded out by disciplines that have no place on campus", Kaye Lamb told those assembled at the University of B.C. To whit, by "technological specialization". He was a believer, he said, in a university education to elevate the human spirit, not to train the workers of tomorrow.
Though the debate still rages, it's worth noting that the audience was the graduating class of 1957. And Lamb, at the time busy building the National Library of Canada, was no Luddite. His first collections comprised slides taken from the then-novel technology of microphotography, and he was rarely seen without his camera. One of his last moves before retiring from the National Library in 1969 was to oversee the implementation of the first computerized library catalogue in the country.
Lamb's occupations - archivist, librarian, historian, author - connote a reclusive, antisocial individual, yet he's described by those who knew him as energetic, affable and driven.
His response to repeated bouts of illness as a child, as a graduate student and over the past 15 years, when he was largely confined to his home, was to consume astonishing numbers of books. And produce them, too - his most prolific period as an author came after his retirement, in the 1970s and '80s. He wrote books ranging from Rivers of Canada to Canada's Five Centuries. His masterwork was his four-volume 1985 edition of the journals of Captain George Vancouver, which he edited and furnished with a 256-page introduction, in itself the definitive biography of the explorer.
Lamb's first love was ships. As a teenager, he would talk the crews of the Empress liners into giving him a tour of the ships whenever they were in port. He wrote to the Canadian Pacific Railway and collected the ships' plans.
Today they reside at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the best surviving records of the trans-Pacific passenger service.
Lamb earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history at UBC, and there met Wessie Tipping, a scholar of French literature. (The two would marry in 1939.)
He won the Nicol scholarship, which took him to the Sorbonne for postgraduate studies. After three years in Paris, whereupon he became fluently bilingual, he moved on to the University of London for his PhD.
Returning to Vancouver, Lamb taught history at UBC, then moved to Victoria in 1934 to become provincial archivist and librarian. In 1940 he succeeded John Ridington, founder of the UBC library, taking over the care of its 20,000 volumes.
Drafted by the Canadian Library Association as its president, Lamb made a fateful presentation to prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1948, which included a complete volume of the Colonial Advocate, published by the prime minister's illustrious grandfather, on microfilm. Canada was the only civilized nation without a national library, he argued. It was time to build one.
Though there was no shortage of pressing public policy issues during the postwar years, the cause captured Mackenzie King's imagination. He appointed Lamb Dominion archivist, with a mandate to further the aims of the CLA. At that point, Lamb had no experience supervising people, but as Basil Stuart Stubbs, one of his successors at the UBC library, observes, "he seemed to have an innate understanding of organizational structure".
He managed to pry an ever-larger budget out of the federal treasury department each year to create a national library, going so far as to himself draft the National Library Act, passed in 1952. He hired some of the ablest record-keepers on the continent.
"He quite literally built the institution from the ground up", says Tom Delsey, the current director general, corporate policy and communications, for the National Library. Instead of trying to build a collection from scratch, Lamb set about compiling a national catalogue of books and manuscripts held in government departments, universities, museums and private collections. Everything that had not been copied already was committed to microfilm and filed in a small office in Ottawa.
Lamb also initiated a system of resource-sharing for libraries across Canada. He believed his efforts at the national level were for nought if they did not benefit the small, community library.
All the time, he made strategic acquisitions, such as the letters of generals Wolfe and Montcalm leading up to the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1753. He proposed a new building to house both the National Library and National Archives, which opened in 1967.
By the time he left it two years later, Canada's national library and archives compared with the most voluminous, accessible and up-to-date in the world, says Lamb's daughter, Elizabeth Hawkins. And though Hawkins may be a little biased, she should know; she worked at both the National Library and the National Archives for 32 years, retiring just two years ago.
Though a well-liked and committed public servant, Lamb was nonetheless a man of strong opinions. He came under fire in the 1950s for sealing Mackenzie King's diaries from biographer Bernard Ostry. These were private papers, he responded, not the property of the archives, and as literary executor of the former prime minister's estate, he had King's wishes to uphold.
As an occasional book reviewer for The Vancouver Sun in the 1970s, he savaged George Bowering's historical novel Burning Water for "taking only scant account of historical facts and good taste". He attacked academic specialization as the "third solitude", and often reminded his colleagues that "being readable is not a sin", recalled Jean-Pierre Wallot, a former national archivist and president of the Royal Society of Canada, at a memorial service held last week in Vancouver.
Lamb's wife, Wessie, died in 1981, and as that decade wore on, Lamb became less and less mobile. His chief joys seemed to be watching the ships come and go in English Bay from his West End apartment, and sending out his trademark typewritten memos to fellow scholars and writers. He spent the last year at UBC's long-term care facility, mentally as sharp as ever down to his final 48 hours.
Though his studies and his work took him all over the world, says Elizabeth Hawkins, "a piece of him was always in Vancouver".
* See Lamb, W. Kaye - Princess Story a Century and a Half of West Coast Shipping
* See Lamb, W. Kaye - History of the Canadian Pacific Railway
* See Lamb, W. Kaye - Empress to the Orient
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