The Feminization of Librarianship
Since the proliferation of American public libraries began in the late nineteenth century, library work has been associated with women. As in other female dominated fields the salaries and benefits are less than those fields that associated with traditionally male skills and personality traits. When women initially entered the field in high numbers their economic options for professional and intellectual expression were limited and thus the role of the librarian was adopted as a female identity that fit conveniently into prevailing societal norms of a women as service-oriented nurturers.
The discussion about women in librarianship has often failed to address the root causes of divisions in gender that are wrongly assumed to be inherent. Librarians must address the roots of why femininity is debased in the workplace and also seek to illuminate the vast contributions women have made in the field.
Historically, women’s economic options have been decidedly limited as workers. In the late nineteenth century without many jobs available to educated women, male library administrators often accepted the employment of women as librarians and assistants as a means of allowing their organizations to survive financially. Access to alternate types of employment proved to be an important factor in attracting women to the profession. Male librarians at the time were accepting of incoming women simply for the cost-effective opportunity that they provided.
The common practice of undervaluing library work may be observed in both the low salaries of women who worked in libraries of the past and also in the salaries of modern librarians. While the gap in wages between genders may have significantly closed over the years, salaries as a whole have remained depressed for all individuals working in the field. To this day librarians remain one of the lowest paid individuals whose job requires an advanced degree besides social work (another field that is associated with women).
The opportunity for women to enter library school at Columbia College, later known as Columbia University, in 1887 proved to be a double-edmged sword in ters of women’s opportunity for advancement. Melvil Dewey (right) championed women as librarians and library school educators but placed caps on their achievement in terms of gender straight away. According to Dewey’s blatant double standard, women had to demonstrate truly remarkable ability or be relegated to perpetual underling status.
One such woman was Mary Wright Plummer, one of Dewey’s first library science students at Colombia. Born into a large prosperous Quaker family, Plummer had grown up feeling entitled to success alongside her male relatives. A former graduate of Wellesley, Plummer eventually went on to help launch the Pratt Institute Library School. Plummer eventually became the director of Pratt Institute’s Free Library. She also helped develop the first children’s room and began training librarians in youth services.
Other women served as library directors in the early nineteenth century as well. Katherine Sharp served as the director of the Armour Institute Library School in Chicago. Sharp instituted a requirement that students complete two years of college before being admitted and stressed that methodological teaching served library students best as opposed to abstract theory. Sharp also was a key player in encouraging the American Library Association to critique the performance of library schools.
Both Katherine Sharp and Mary Wright Plummer wanted their graduates to be successful and to fortify the profession of librarianship. They encouraged their students to maintain their school’s reputations and to develop successful careers advising library boards of trustees to keep librarian’s salaries at a high rate. Of course, this was not always the case for women when they found employment.
The process of assigning new labels to library science in order to help achieve status may be noted as a sexist move to shun the female-intensive aspects of their work. While higher paid managerial and technical jobs are popular choices for men, traditionally feminine jobs such as cataloguing or children’s services remain common choices for women in library science. The adaptation of library jobs to focus more on the maintenance and operation of computers rather than ethics of service is a clear indicator that the field has resisted the application of a feminine label.
In lieu of reassessing library work and labeling it with a technical label that gives it more credit for masculine attributes, aspects of library work that are associated with women must be given comparable value. While all aspects of library work deserve recognition, including both technical services and traditional areas like reference and children’s services, drawing binary lines between job roles invariably points to gender separation and lowered status for women.
History suggests that without question women have and do serve as leaders and innovators in the field despite obstacles placed on them in terms of gender expectation. The image of the librarian as a genteel and unassertive woman certainly has prevailed as time has progressed. The advent of new advancements in technology has also contributed to further divisions in library job descriptions. A new definition of value is called for in assigning worth to women’s contributions to library work. Rather than scrambling for professional status librarians must examine the larger cultural politics that perpetually create divisive dichotomies between men and women.