James Thompson, 1932-2015

One of the foremost academic librarians of his generation has died

March 5, 2015

James Thompson was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 11 January 1932 and educated at St Cuthbert’s Grammar School. He then went straight to work in the city’s public libraries, passed his professional exams and decided to take a degree in English at what was then King’s College, Newcastle. After graduating with a first, he returned briefly to the city libraries (1957-59) before shifting into academic librarianship at the University of Nottingham.

Although he was soon promoted to chief cataloguer, Mr Thompson moved on to a position as senior assistant librarian at the University of East Anglia (1963-65) and then rose rapidly up the ranks to deputy librarian at the University of Glasgow (1965-67) and, still only 35, to the post of librarian at the University of Reading (1967-87). Well before many other librarians, he thought deeply about the advantages and disadvantages of automation and set out his views in the provocatively titled book The End of Libraries (1982). He pushed through an extensive automation programme at Reading, while also expanding the library’s staff, extending the premises and developing the special collections, notably in the fields of publishing and modern literary papers.

While still at Reading, Mr Thompson established himself as a leading figure in the profession through books such as An Introduction to University Library Administration, which went through four editions between 1970 and 1987. After two decades, however, he decided to take on fresh challenges as librarian at the University of Birmingham (1987-95) and embarked on a major programme of modernisation, which he detailed in Redirection in Academic Library Management (1991).

During his time at Birmingham, separate departmental libraries were taken into full university control, and major acquisitions ensured that research collections were given a much higher profile. After his retirement in 1995, Mr Thompson described these initiatives in their broader historical context in A Centennial History of the Library of the University of Birmingham (2000).

For Clive Field, who served as his deputy (and is now an honorary research fellow in Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures), Mr Thompson was “a congenial and supportive boss who was willing to delegate, and was motivated by the sole desire to deliver good service to university staff and students. His attention to detail was such that he inspected his library domain on a daily basis, [and his observations] typically ended up in his list of improvements and suggestions for action by or through the deputy librarian.”

Mr Thompson died on 30 January after a period of illness and is survived by his wife Susan, as well as a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.


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