Women in American librarianship and valuing women’s work

June 26, 2010

I recently finished reading the updated edition of THE STORY OF LIBRARIES: FROM THE INVENTION OF WRITING TO THE COMPUTER AGE (Continuum, 2009) by Fred Lerner. It exists in this weird intersection between scholarly and recreational reading (the text is more dense than I was expecting and that I think a casual reader would want, but Lerner isn’t as rigorous in citing his sources as I’d expect for an academic work), but as I read, I was enjoying little historical tidbits. For example:

  • Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) had a library of 1500 tablets organized by subject and edited and revised them himself. Libraries go way back!
  • Libraries in Asia that existed before the Middle Ages or so were light years ahead of Western civilization at the time.
  • Prior to World War II, scientists worked hard to share widely their research and publications, but the war created a division in which both sides were trying to share widely within their own boundaries to encourage innovation that might win the war but were increasingly cautious about letting that scientific progress be known to the other side. So in 1944 these two German agents get off a submarine on the coast of Maine. They have a microfilm camera with them and they’re planning to head to the New York Public Library and photograph scientific journals–but they’re apprehended by the FBI before they can do so. Libraries in the middle of a Nazi plot to steal American science!

But as Lerner’s narrative moved into more modern times and he started reflecting on the mission of libraries and their place in society, I started feeling angrier and angrier. Little things seemed to indicate that he was valuing academic libraries over public libraries, that he thought women had warped the purpose of libraries, and that certain kinds of library use were more important or worthy than others. And then near the end there was one particular chapter–one particular page, even–that just drove me nuts. I’d like to share that page and why I felt so angry and why I think he’s wrong.

Lerner writes:

Libraries and librarians have always existed at the margins of the society they served. (p. 181)

The ‘feminization of librarianship’ is often adduced as the essential reason for the marginalization of the field in America. In 1852, the Boston Public Library hired its first female clerk; by 1878 two-thirds of American library workers were women; and by the 1920s that figure had reached nearly 90 percent. During those years the leaders of the most important libraries–like the top people in every field–were men; but most of the staff that a library user would encounter were female.


In one sense, the lack of respect that libraries and librarians have endured can rightly be traced to the feminization of librarianship. The first women to become librarians in England and America were imbued with the middle-class notion that women were a civilizing force in society with special feminine abilities to work with the young, the sick, and the poor. Under their leadership, libraries became identified with underprivileged and marginal elements of society. (p. 182)

First of all, it’s contradictory that librarians have always been marginalized, but it’s somehow still women’s faults, even though they apparently weren’t part of the profession until the 1800s.

Now, the leaders of libraries were men (of course!) but somehow “under [women’s] leadership, libraries became identified with underprivileged and marginal elements of society.” But if women were always subservient to men, how could they have been at the helm changing the library’s mission and image?

The answer is that there were women leaders and that their values (not some sort of womanly deficiency they all had) shaped American librarianship. I also just finished WOMEN AND THE VALUES OF AMERICAN LIBRARIANSHIP (Ide House, 1994) by Sydney Chambers and Carolynne Myall and they provide tons of examples. Here are just a very few:

  • Public libraries were formed out of community libraries that were originally started by women in most cases. In 1933 the ALA “credited women’s clubs with the repsonsibility for initiating 75 percent of the public libraries in existence at that time” (p. 17).
  • Isadore Gilbert Mudge built Columbia University’s reference collection and taught library school students her methods of conducting a reference interview. (p. 29)
  • Adelaide Hasse was a founder of special librarianship, developed a classification scheme, and helped form the US Government Documents service. (p. 31)
  • “[O]f the four insitutions established before 1900 which later became charter members of the Association of American Library Schools, the founding directors of three were women,” Katherine Sharp, Mary Wright Plummer, and Alice Kroeger. (p. 36)
  • Mary Wright Plummer was the head of the library school at the Pratt Institute Free Library from 1895 to 1911, the Principal of the library school at NYPL from 1911 to 1916, and was President of ALA from 1915 to 1916–years before women were even allowed to vote! (p. 35)
  • The director of the LA Public Library from 1889 to 1895 was Tessa Kelso–and this was decades before women got the vote. (p. 43)

While women who held leadership positions often did so at local or state or regional levels, women were also library founders, innovators in their fields, library directors, library school founders, and even served as the president of ALA before their country trusted them to vote.

Lerner goes on to describe how libraries being shaped by women’s values ruined the reputation of librarianship:

To many of those who controlled the country’s purse strings and set its priorities, that made the library into a societal luxury–inexpensive enough to maintain at a limited level, but irrelevant to the real needs of those who mattered. The low repute that has been the constant companion of the pedagogue has also had its impact. Despite librarians’ attempts to be viewed as educators, it is the prestige of the schoolteacher rather than that of the professor that has become attached to them. (p. 182)

I hope he’s being hyperbolic here and that he doesn’t actually mean this because it privileges helping academics meet their information needs over helping working-class people meet their information needs. I reject that ranking of human beings as more important or less important just because of their socioeconomic class. Taking care of the neediest in a community shouldn’t be a “societal luxury.” It should be our top priority.

The “problem” with librarianship isn’t that women were allowed in the field and that somehow ruined it. It’s that women themselves aren’t valued, that women’s work isn’t valued, and that women’s values aren’t respected as valid.

Chambers and Myall write about how early research in ethics was done by men on male subjects. Rather than interview both men and women and develop a view of human ethics that way, their theories of ethical development were entirely based on what boys and men valued and how their values changed as they grew; women who held different values were seen as ethically immature or deviant. That’s subsequently changed: research has broadened to include women, and we now have more research and a better understanding of women’s ethics and values. (As a note, it’s not that all women hold these values or that no men do; rather, the majority of women studied have ethical systems that are more like this model than the traditional model, and the majority of men have another set of values. There’s blending, of course, and women who hold “male” values and men who hold “female” values, but in general we can model women’s vales differently than men’s.)

Chambers and Myall paraphrase the list of women’s values that Sally Helgesen outlines in THE FEMALE ADVANTAGE thusly:

  • responsibility to community and sense of responsibility for maintaining community;
  • cooperation rather than competition;
  • concern for children and weaker members of the community;
  • objectivity, a nonjudgmental appreciation for multiple points of view, which we regard as an important aspect of what some would call ‘selflessness’;
  • concern for consequences of actions;
  • holistic view of human beings;
  • local scope of action (sometimes expressed as ‘think globally, act locally’);
  • connectedness as both fact of life and value to encourage.

(p. 6)

They then link library services (like reference, collection development, bibliographic instruction, and interlibrary loan) to these values.

Anyway, Lerner goes on:

Especially in the United States, the social-work impulse has continued to be pervasive among librarians. Most are imbued with a missionary confidence in the importance of reading, but have little interest in assessing or dealing with the economic importance of information. (p. 182)

It’s not “missionary confidence.” That makes it sound like librarians have some sort of blind faith in why reading is important, but there is a lot of research that backs up the good reading to kids does for their futures, and illiteracy among adults is an incredible barrier to their being able to participate in life at a very basic level. And again here Lerner prioritizes male values (economics, competition, ability to exploit something to make money) over feminine values (community, helping others, improving the world). Healso talks a lot in the chapter after this one about “information science” and being able to come up with new ways to access and shape information and how this new research should be used to make money and deliver information differently to people with money than to people without. He gets all excited about technology and I think Thomas Mann would have a bone to pick with him about Lerner’s dismissal of traditional library ideas and practices. Lerner also seems to have no concept of the digital divide within our own country (although he does talk a little about the problems libraries in developing countries face).

Anyway, in this passage about women and American librarianship, Lerner continues:

Much of the leadership in developing new ways of access to information has come from chemists, computer scientists, economists, linguists, philosophers–from people whose professional interest in information science has not been shaped by the library schools and library literature.

But this is nothing new. The librarians at Alexandria never went to library school, and nobody at Urbino ever read a library journal. The craft of librarianship is not so narrowly defined. For many centuries a love of literature and a respect for learning have been the essential qualifications of the effective librarian. (p. 182-183)

So basically it seems like Lerner’s understanding of American librarianship goes something like this:

1. Librarianship was great until women showed up.

2. Men managed to maintain leadership positions after the ladies arrived, but since women had the majority of positions under them, they somehow took control of the library and changed its values and ruined everything.

3. The change women brought about was caring about stupid poor people and children instead of taking care of Very Serious Research Business for important rich people.

4. Now that no one respects librarians anymore and librarianship is full of stupid ladies, no one in the field is doing Important Information Science Research and all of the innovations are coming from people outside of the field.

5. All of those outsiders are making truckloads of money on their information science innovations and lady librarians are so dumb that they’re content to continue helping those stupid poor people and children instead of exploiting technology to exclude some people and make money off of everyone else.

6. It doesn’t matter anyway, though, you stupid lady librarians, because library science isn’t a real thing and hasn’t been a real thing since the beginning, so you can keep your stupid books and your stupid poor people and your stupid children and your stupid lady-filled profession.

Librarianship is a fantastic example of one of the very first fields in which women could exercise their intellects and their leadership skills outside of the home. Because women participated in the field in such huge numbers–and did hold leadership roles both as practitioners and as educators–it was shaped according to women’s values. Librarianship’s emphasis of those values persists today and despite the good public libraries and public librarians do in the world, the profession is still undervalued because of its association with women and their values. Librarians are told that if they’d only be more like men, more competitive, more interested in making money and less interested in helping people, that they’d be more respected.

And that’s bogus.

Share this post:
[del.icio.us] [Facebook] [Twitter] [Email]

Filed under: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , ,

9 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Andrea  |  June 28, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    Who is this guy? Apparently he’s a historian and a librarian – or shall we make that a guybrarian. Obviously not an economist! Or someone who can make a defensible argument. Continuum is not a university press – therefore his work has not been subject to peer review and it really shows.

    You can’t ignore the exploitation of women as cheap labor by these esteemed men running the nation’s libraries during the late 1880s and early 1900s. As the numbers of public libraries grew, so did the need for more human resources. Working in libraries became a third option (teaching and nursing) and one that didn’t involved working with children. You can see the appeal especially for women like me. :)

    So right on Gretchen, women were not and are not valued by society and therefore your logical follows perfectly. Pity- because of if women and “their ways” were valued libraries would be better funded and the world a safer place to live.

    Unfortunately, Library Journal makes no mention of the flawed presentation of the role of women in the development of US libraries in the publication’s review of it. Perhaps, the book was reviewed by a man, a crony perhaps, not wanting to hurt sells of the book to libraries – where women do the buying.

    Perhaps a letter to the editor of American Libraries is due?

  • 2. Gretchen  |  June 29, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    It really surprised me to get an anti-librarian vibe from Lerner since, according to his bio on the back of the book, he’s a librarian. Then again, maybe he sees himself more as an information scientist and is using that lofty perch from which to pooh-pooh we lowly library science folk.

    I wonder if the reviewer you mention just didn’t see the anti-women stance coloring the last bit of the book. I’m always surprised by how some men just don’t ever consider gender in what they encounter.

  • 3. anna  |  July 15, 2010 at 7:37 PM

    i absolutely love your blog! this post is incredible.
    you went to school with my husband, eric bradley, and he shared your blog with me.
    i love the step by step dissection of lerner’s arguments.
    anyway, awesome work.

  • 4. Fergus  |  July 28, 2010 at 1:23 AM

    LADIES RUIN EVERYTHING! All the knowledge just wooshes up their vaginas! Good post!

  • 5. Gretchen  |  July 28, 2010 at 3:11 PM

    Anna: I’m glad you liked this post–and that you and Eric read my blog! He and I had a lot of really thought-provoking discussions in high school and I always really appreciated his perspective.

  • 6. ann  |  December 19, 2011 at 8:20 PM

    Fields have always gone down in pay and prestige when women enter them in great numbers (see clerical work and nursing after the American Civil War for example), not because women stink, but because we aren’t valued. Many women care about making money and having power and status, but once women get into a field it is devalued by people in general- after all, if women can do it it can’t be that good or important.

  • 7. Women in American librari&hellip  |  April 26, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    […] Women in American librarianship and valuing women’s work […]

  • 8. Www.balajeeenterprise.com&hellip  |  April 27, 2017 at 6:00 AM


    Librarified » Women in American librarianship and valuing women’s work

  • 9. klasemen&hellip  |  June 28, 2017 at 6:43 AM


    Librarified » Women in American librarianship and valuing women’s work

Leave a Comment


(required), (Hidden)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

TrackBack URL  |  RSS feed for comments on this post

Subscribe to Librarified

Recent Posts

Featured Posts


Book Blogs

General Library Blogs

YA/Youth Services Blogs