Prof Ronald Benge: The Father of Library Science in West Africa

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By David Matthews

Professor Ronald Benge was a pacifist-cum-war hero, a sometime Communist party member, a writer and an immensely stimulating educator of librarians.

In 1961, backed by President Kwame Nkrumah, he set up a library school in Ghana. In 1970 his hugely successful Libraries and Cultural Change was published, followed by Communication and Identity (1972).

In 1974 he joined the Ahmadu Bello University, northern Nigeria, and set up his second library department.

Ronald Benge was born in Fulham, south-west London. His father, a first world war colonel’s batman, became a butler in a house in Kent; his mother was the cook.

Ronald enjoyed an arcadian childhood. After the Judd grammar school, Tonbridge, he worked for Tunbridge Wells library and joined the Peace Pledge Union.

But he joined the army in 1940, and two years later, in Tunisia, was awarded the Military Medal. The following year, in Sicily, he was commissioned “in the field” and was awarded an MC at the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.

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After the war, he worked at St Marylebone public library in central London until 1951. He then became a lecturer in the librarianship department at North-Western Polytechnic (now merged into London Metropolitan University). He was also a columnist for Assistant Librarian magazine.

Before moving to Ghana, Ronald Benge made an unsuccessful attempt to set up a library school in Trinidad. He published Bibliography and the Provision of Books in 1963, and from 1967 to 1972 he was at the College of Librarianship Wales in Aberystwyth, and took an MA from University College London. He then went to Nigeria, remaining there until 1986.

In 1980, with Philip Larkin, he became an honorary fellow of the Library Association. Like the poet, Ronald had a keen eye for folly, and also wrote prose and verse. His autobiography, Confessions of a Lapsed Librarian (1984), was both perceptive and uncommonly explicit – especially about developing countries.

His life had been an unconventional one, and he could be exasperating. Diverting and witty, he was committed to libraries and to his students, and liked a drink.

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He retired first to Spain but finally settled in St Pons de Thomières in Languedoc. He was married three times. He had a stepdaughter from his first marriage; a son by his second wife as well as an adopted son from Ghana and an adopted daughter from Trinidad. He met his third wife in Nigeria, resulting in a daughter and a stepdaughter.

Professor Ronald Benge died on 14 January 2009 in St Pons-de-Thomières, Hérault, Languedoc, France aged 90.

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