A few months ago, the Library History Buff Blog did a piece on early children’s rooms in public libraries. While the piece was short, I thought it was especially interesting to see the motivations behind offering library services and facilities for young people:
Although various libraries including the Boston Public Library lay claim to having the first public library children’s room, the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts seems to have the strongest claim. Their children’s room was established in June of 1890 primarily to get noisy children out of the adult reading room. It was initially supervised by the library’s janitor.
John Cotton Dana of the Denver Public Library–the first to offer dedicated children’s services in 1894–did say, “If public libraries are of value, this form of a children’s department must be, if not the ideal thing, certainly an ideal thing.” But in 1896, Mary Wright Plummer found only 15 public libraries nationwide that provided services from a children’s room.
We’ve certainly come a long way in providing library services to young people since then, but how many libraries don’t have a dedicated teen space or even a dedicated YA librarian? (This seems like a good point to plug YALSA’s Teen Services Evaluation Tool, a rubric based on YALSA’s Core Competencies that you can use to assess your library’s success in having the resources and desire to provide great service to teens.) There’s always progress to be made!
Sarah of Glass Cases recently wrote an essay called “YA: Then vs. Now” with an interesting mix of history of YA lit as well as personal reflections on growing up with the YA lit of the ’90s and musings on some historically significant titles. In the essay, she’s trying to pinpoint when YA lit turned the corner from “writing about teens” to “writing for teens.” Especially since I’m about the same age, it was a pretty interesting read.
And man, if you want some vintage YA lit, check out the Mod-Mod Read-In Paperback Book List featured on Sara Ryan’s blog. It’s pretty groovy (click through for more scans and some analysis of the chosen titles):
You know what we need? More recognition of awesome women who rock out in their fields. While librarianship has historically been a women’s profession, anything to do with computers or programming has generally been branded as being for men (although one of the first computer programmers was a women!). But what about the people who exist at the intersection of libraries and computers? The Geek Feminism Blog recently featured Henriette Avram, who was a programmer who worked for the Library of Congress and who is responsible for the creation of MARC in the 1960s. Awesome.
Women ruining everything (again)
Of course, not everyone wants to recognize women’s accomplishments. Some would rather distance themselves from women in the workplace because apparently women defile everything they touch and even just being associated with women or what they do will ruin you and your career. At least, that seems to be the gist of Penelope Trunk’s blog post “What To Get Ahead? Stay Away From Women.” (It is possible that she doesn’t mean what she says, that she is writing these things ironically or sarcastically or in some other way where I can believe she’s not for real, but I don’t think that’s the case.)
Trunk’s starts with the idea of a “competition gap” wherein women self-select themselves into lower-paying, less prestigious fields, and that even within their chosen field, they go for “support roles” rather than competitive management positions, or–in her case–even if they are in a “man’s field,” they choose to focus on womanly things, like writing about women and their lives. This is true! We do value competition and men over nurturing and women. (And I’ve written about this before in the context of libraries.)
But rather than having a problem with privileging things that are labeled male over things that are labeled female, rather than trying to elevate the prestige of “women’s work,” she wants women to just stop complaining about this gap:
The thing is that Kimberly concludes in her post that women are getting ripped off. It kills me. I don’t want to be writing next to women who believe that women are getting a raw deal and then complain about it. I don’t buy it.
Women are getting a raw deal if they’re constantly being told that choosing things that interest them and that they value, that being a woman are bad things and that if they were just more manly, they’d succeed. So what’s Trunk’s advice?
Women: It is very bad to write stuff about dinner with family if you are trying to get ahead. Do not do this. People assume that if you have kids you will do less work. This may or may not be true – I mean, doing less work. But what is true is that you should not talk about family at work if you want to be in the all-boys departments.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be in the all-boys departments. I want to do work that is meaningful to me, and I want society to value that work. Every day, I work in a public library with teens–I think the only way it could be more women’s work is if I were working with children–and that work has an impact on those teens and on my community. I am proud of what I do. I’d like for other people to value that as much as they value technology, competition, and dudeliness.
Some encouraging successes
Wow, after that downer, let’s talk about some good things that have happened recently!
Michelle Luhtala, the librarian at the high school in the town that my library serves, is hands-down totally awesome. She’s really plugged into technology and the importance of tech in libraries and schools, she’s a webinar facilitator for edWeb.net, she’s been named Librarian of the Year by CLA, she was recently elected Director of Region 1 of AASL, she churns out instructional tools like crazy, and she has a great relationship with her students. Last year her library was one of two to be named AASL’s National School Library Program of the Year, and earlier this month Nancy Everhart, the president of AASL, made New Canaan High School her Connecticut stop on her nationwide tour.
More good news: at the beginning of this year, a controversy erupted when the director of the Enfield (CT) Public Library was told the library couldn’t show Michael Moore’s “Sicko” as part of their ongoing film program. The library was eventually allowed to show the movie, which was a victory in itself, but the director was also recently recognized by the Connecticut Library Association with an Intellectual Freedom Award.
There are lots of successes we have each day that are never officially recognized with awards but are just as meaningful. David Lubar recently wrote a LiveJournal post about an email he received from a parent about how his books had so captured her son’s imagination that he had gone from below grade-level reading to above grade-level–and that he’d begun writing his own stories. That’s really powerful stuff.
I’ve recently had a couple of those moments–maybe smaller, but no less encouraging–myself. I’m organizing a Minecraft competition at my library (I’m planning to talk about it in detail once it’s happened) and one of my TAB kids is helping spread the word to her friends on Facebook. Her post was attracting a few comments, and then one of her non-library-going friends wrote, “That’s actually like way too cool for a library to be doing,” and seeing that totally made my day. I am changing non-library users’ perceptions of what a library is and does!
And then last week, a former borderline troublemaker came over to me and out of nowhere said that I was doing a good job of standing up for teens and that I was making the library a better place for teens. He couldn’t have made me happier if I’d been feeding him lines to parrot back at me! And then he asked if he could join our Teen Advisory Board!
So you know, haters gonna hate–but I’m doing my job and it’s having an impact on my community and I feel good about that. And you should feel good about your work, too! What encouragement have you received recently?
My notes for the other three sessions I attended aren’t as extensive, so I’m going to cover them all in one post. First up is my third Saturday session, “The New Gay Teen: Moving Beyond the ‘Issue’ Novel” with Alexandra Diaz, Madeline George, PG Kain, Carley Moore, Lauren Myracle, and Stephanie Hopkins.
Imagine that you’re just waking up and you realize your hands are tied. What’s happened over the last few hours is sort of hazy–you remember something about a fire and your friends. You don’t know where Robin is. And not only are your hands tied, you’re blindfolded, too. From the slight sway and the smell of the sea, you think you might be on a ship. Have you been captured by pirates? Will you have to fight them? Could you become a spy? You definitely remember a fire and pirates and maybe even space aliens–but none of that matters because you’re gay.
That’s how Alexandra started off this session and while it drew some laughs, it also drew attention to the way that stories with LGBTQIA characters are often focused on the character’s sexual identity or preferences as the primary conflict or issue in the story. In fact, Alexandra summed it all up really nicely when she said, “If [a character's sexuality] continues to be the issue, it will continue to be an issue.”
This session was mostly a panel discussion where authors read from some of their books with LGBTQIA characters and talked about the way sexual preferences and identity played out in their books and in YA lit in general. Madeline George’s reading from her upcoming novel (currently untitled, due out in spring 2012) about a butch lesbian who, through her relationship with two other young women, learns to go beyond identity politics had the audience nearly in tears with laughter and I am seriously dying to read it.
Some of the common ideas that emerged were that of ignorance, of the gap between teen’s experiences and their language for those experiences, and the desire of LGBTQIA teens to read stories that have LGBTQIA characters who do something other than wrestle with their sexual identity. We also got a fabulous booklist with LGBTQ titles in YA lit that I cannot find online. Does anyone have a link?
My final session on Saturday was “Images and Issues Beyond the Dominant: Including Diversity in Your Graphic Novel Collection.” This was a booklist-heavy session, but the sheer range of things we saw was fantastic. Graphic novels and manga can portray race and ethnicity, disability, and body shapes in a different way than prose or poetry can, and that makes some stories incredibly powerful. Again, we learned that readers are getting tired of “issue” stories and just want characters who are like them having interesting adventures.
Oh, and we were pointed to webcomics as the new frontier for library graphic novel/manga/comic collections. Some will never appear in print, so how do you make them available to your patrons?
And my final session of the symposium was on Sunday morning. I attended Melissa Rabey’s “Doomed to Repeat It: Diversity in Historical Fiction” with authors Christina Diaz Gonzales and Ruta Sepetys. Melissa identified diversity in historical fiction as telling the stories of lesser-known cultures and civilizations, considering famous events from alternate perspectives, and looking at a group’s past beyond the events most associated with that group (so that not every historical fiction story about a Jewish character takes place during the Holocaust). In general, there’s been a slow improvement in the range of explored culture, and some groups have received fuller treatment than others.
Melissa then shared with us a bunch of interesting titles and concluded with what we need to see with diversity in historical fiction (Hispanic historical fiction set in the US; stories from Africa, South America, and the Middle East; and fresh takes and recent history) and what she sees coming up (mashups between historical fiction and other genres and blending historical fiction with current trends like paranormal elements), but left open the question of where diversity fits.
This session ended with a really awesome author panel. Christina Diaz Gonzales recently wrote The Red Umbrella, which is about a fourteen-year-old girl who travels from Cuba to the US in 1961 as part of Operation Pedro Pan and is based on her parents’ story. Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray comes out in March and tells the story of a fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941 whose family is sent to Siberia during Stalin’s “cleansing” of the Baltic region.
They both talked about the research they did, the importance of authenticity, and why historical fiction matters. Ruta had a very difficult time getting survivors to tell her their stories since they fear repercussion (the Balkans only got their independence in the ’90s, so stories are still emerging), and as part of her research, she participated in a simulation of what it was like in a gulag during which she was beaten and wound up rupturing two discs in her back and going home in a wheelchair. She was shocked by how quickly she put aside her values in the interest of self preservation. (You can see her and videos of survivors at the official site for the book.) But at the end, she said that by sharing history with teens through fiction we can try to create a more just future. On the role and importance of historical fiction, Christina said, “Teens want a good story. If it also teaches them about history or their own families’ history, that’s our goal.” She also pointed out that authors tell the stories that are in their hearts, but they have to be told authentically. If authors don’t have a personal connection to a culture, they need to do their research.
The second session I attended on Saturday morning was “Beyond Good Intentions and Chicken Soup: Young Adult Literature and Disability Diversity: How Far Have We Come?” with Dr. Heather Garrison, Dr. Katherine Schneider (founder of the Schneider Family Book Award!), and author Terry Trueman.
This was another really outstanding session. The speakers opened with an explanation of disability as a social construct (it’s society that disables people by not providing allowances and through the perception of others) and a short examination of different models of disability, including the medical model (there is something wrong with people with disabilities’ bodies), the moral model (there is something wrong with or shameful about people with disabilities), and the minority model (disability sets someone apart, but it’s something one can be proud of and that person can lead a full life).
With a bit of a theoretical groundwork, they next talked about the importance of the depiction of disability in literature. Since 20-30% of the population has a disability, it’s not something that we can ignore or not address. Positive depictions of people with disabilities counteract Othering, and reading stories about characters with disabilities may be a reader’s first exposure to disability. (Making this point later, Terry Trueman said that he hoped that after someone read his book Stuck in Neutral, they might see someone with cerebral palsy and think, “Maybe that person is like Shawn, which means that maybe that person is like me.”). Futhermore, seeing characters with disabilities means that people with disabilities are worth writing about. Characters with disabilities can be leaders, have girlfriends, and go on adventures–they’re more than just their disability. And finally, having characters with disabilities in good stories provides positive role models for people with disabilities.
We find a lot of stereotypes of people with disabilities in literature, many of them contradictory. For example, characters with disabilities are either asexual or hypersexual, victims or vengeful, infantile or “supercrips” with powers beyond that of “normal” people. We see a lot of this especially in classic literature, and we were encouraged to instead of glossing over a character’s disability, to address the potentially problematic depiction of that disability and how the disability was perceived during the time in which the book was written. We shouldn’t ignore problematic depictions of disability, but should instead use them as a chance to discuss and education.
When we’re evaluating books that include a character with disabilities, we should consider:
Attitudes: are the characters with disabilities equally active but not a super-person? Are they accepted without having to overcome their disabilities or prove themselves?
Accuracy: what are the credentials of the author (including personal experience)? Is accurate information given in a variety of settings? Are equipment, accommodations, adaptations, and support all depicted correctly?
If you’re reviewing a book that includes mention of a disability and you’re not sure if the depiction is accurate, ask someone with that disability. The slogan “nothing about us without us” is helpful here–people with particular disabilities are the best authority on that disability because of their lived experience. You can also pair potentially problematic books with a memoir by someone who also has that particular disability.
There was also a great list of what is and isn’t available in both nonfiction and fiction:
Available in nonfiction: “living with…” books about particular disabilities, books about sibling issues and self-esteem issues, and biographies and autobiographies
Not widely available in nonfiction: books about sex, jobs, manners, histories, Daring Book for Girls-style books, and “and” books address disability and race or class or gender
Available in fiction: relationships, drugs, alcohol, sex, school issues, teen community, and books in both realistic and sci-fi settings
Not widely available in fiction: the transition to college, historical fiction, intersection with other identities (e.g., LGBTQIA, poverty, teen parenting, race/ethnicity, religion)
Finally, we were asked how our libraries do with accessibility. Can people with disabilities use your website and electronic products? Can they attend your programs? What are staff attitudes like? And are our conferences accessible to people with disabilities? This was the only session I attended that had large print handouts and discs with the handouts in formats that assisting devices for the visually disabled can read.
Dr Garrison kindly sent me handouts from this presentation; I’ve uploaded them so everyone else can access them, too.
Angie started us off with a discussion of the general dehumanization of fat bodies in our society and the distorted view of what is normal and acceptable in body shape. She then introduced us to the Fat Acceptance movement (which I didn’t know has been around since the ’60s). Since more than half of 18- to 25-year-old girls would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid, we need to address body positivity and fat acceptance in YA lit. Teens are looking for themselves in the books they read, so Angie summarized how fat characters are (and aren’t) portrayed in YA lit.
She took us on a tour of books that positively portrayed fat characters, books that had good intentions but didn’t quite make it, and books that were problematic in their treatment of fat characters. The books on the “positive” list had multifaceted characters whose fatness usually wasn’t the primary issue in the story, or whose fatness was completely unrelated to the character’s struggle. The “good intentions” list included titles that seemed to want to treat fat characters fairly, but maybe had them lose weight to be happy or had covers with skinny characters on the front or occasionally used a character’s fatness as a crutch. The “problematic” books were problematic because they focused on weight loss rather than health, put everyone in fat camp and then totally fell apart, or conflated fatness with being a slob or some other character defect.
Angie also shared with us adult titles that treated fat characters positively that would appeal to teens and books that dealt with disordered eating in new ways. All of these booklists will be available on Angie’s blog, Fat Girl Reading, in the next few days.
After getting a taste of the good and bad in treatment of fat characters in YA lit, we talked a little bit about other fat acceptance resources and how to promote positive body image among library teens. One organization in particular that’s working for a broader range of body types is Delta Delta Delta through their Reflections Program. Every year at the end of October, they sponsor Fat Talk Free Week, which aims to eliminate “all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies.” This includes things like “Do I look fat in this?” and “She’s too fat for that dress” and “I need to lose ten pounds.”
In your library, you can make a display or host a discussion group during Fat Talk Free Week. One audience member suggested bringing boys into the conversation and talking about what it means to be a man, since men are expected to adhere to restrictive body shape options as well. Angie also suggested using–with a little adaptation–the Reflection Project’s “Things Your Chapter Can Do to Promote Positive Body Image” with your library teens, too. She also said that Operation Beautiful has been popular among teens in her library. But above all, you should advocate and integrate by including fat lit in booklists, book talks, and book displays.
The second half of the session was an author panel with Megan Frazer (Secrets of Truth and Beauty), Madeleine George (Looks), Susan Vaught (Big Fat Manifesto), and Allen Zadoff (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have). It was really interesting to hear from the authors what their motivation was in writing their books, what they hoped the books would convey to readers, readers’ reactions to their books, and some of the struggles they’d had in writing. Some of the themes I noticed running through their responses were:
feelings of being watched, being judged, and being acceptable
the “paradox of visibility” that Madeline especially talked about where being fat makes you both very visible and simultaneously completely invisible at times
books having alternate titles before being published: Big Fat Manifesto was originally titled Diary of a Big Fat Fat Girl, but marketing didn’t think that’d sell, and Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have was originally Invisible
covers not matching the contents of the book and publishers being unwilling to have fat characters on the covers of books
these books that didn’t stigmatize fatness weren’t about struggling with being fat: they were about finding where you fit, finding connection with other human beings, dealing with family relationships, handling change, and being lovable. Allen said of his protagonist, “it’s not his body that changes–it’s his eyes.”
a universal sense among all teens (and grownups, I think, if we’re being honest) of feeling different and unacceptable
This was one of my favorite sessions of the symposium. I thought it was a great introduction to fat acceptance and a good selection of good and problematic titles with excellent explanations of what makes for a positive or problematic story. And hearing from the authors about their motivations and why their books unfolded the way they did really reinforced a lot of what Angie had been telling us earlier. Themes of authenticity, visibility/invisibility, and moving beyond issue books also surfaced in later sessions.
Angie’s going to put handouts and booklists and resources on her blog in the next few days.
The New York Times recently ran an article about a private company being contracted to run public libraries. The company is LSSI (Library Systems and Services), and they’re now running 14 library systems with 63 different locations in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas–which, if you measure library system size by branches, now makes them the fifth-largest library system in the country. The idea is that a private company is better suited to cutting costs and increasing efficiency, but I think ceding control of our public libraries to private companies will destroy exactly what is good about public libraries.
Alicia of The LibrariYAn does a great job of identifying a lot of the problems with the rationale behind letting a private company take control of a public library and the effects of doing so (especially her arguments about how “cutting costs” often means cutting salaries and benefits and excluding union workers or turning to volunteers instead of trained professionals), but I wanted to contribute some more thoughts.
I think what makes me angriest is what Frank A. Pezzanite, the CEO of LSSI, thinks about libraries and librarians:
“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
You know what, Mr. Pezzanite, screw you. I’m sure that there are librarians who have been coasting throughout their careers, but especially now in a time of budget cuts and there being more MLS grads than there are new positions, the librarians I know are not doing nothing. It’s true that because of the high cost of firing someone and replacing them, it can be difficult to get rid of less productive employees at a non-profit organization, but that’s still no reason to insult an entire profession. And New York Times, you’re really not helping dispel the notion that libraries are full of old people who are resistant to change by showing a picture of an elderly librarian who “is opposed to the outsourcing plan.”
Furthermore, Mr. Pezzanite’s snide dismissal of public libraries as “this American flag, apple pie thing” makes me very angry. The library isn’t a sacred organization, but in many communities, it’s the only place the least fortunate have to go to be put in touch with resources they desperately need. As more and more government services are moved exclusively online (especially things like filing for unemployment) and employers begin accepting applications online only, it’s even more important that public libraries are able to offer free computer and Internet access to those who can’t get online anywhere else. (Remember that 67% of public libraries are the only place in the community that offer free computer and Internet access and that 90% of public libraries offer technology training.)
Libraries are also where parents can take their children for storytimes that improve their literacy skills, where families can borrow DVDs for free, where people can attend classes that teach them new skills or help them develop their hobbies, where anyone can get book recommendations or have their questions answered, where works of fiction and non-fiction representing what humanity has created and discovered are kept, and where resources are shared. None of this is done because it turns a profit, and in fact, the people who most need libraries are the ones who are least able to afford those services elsewhere. A for-profit company is going to be much less concerned with meeting the needs of the community that supports it and much more concerned with operating as cheaply as possible, regardless of what services they have to cut or the quality of those services and materials. In some ways, this echoes the preference for “male” values (competition, success, profit) over “female” values (helping others, sharing, building community) that I’ve talked about before.
I also think that one of the greatest strengths of the public library is that it is local. The management tree never goes past the city or county or maybe state that funds the library, so libraries are able to reflect their communities. They develop digital collections of photographs reflecting their communities over the years, they connect people to local agencies, they plan programs that make use of local people’s expertise, and the really good ones buy locally (even when it’s more expensive than getting materials from huge corporate vendors) and invest the tax dollars they receive back into their communities. I have a hard time believing that a for-profit company based in a state all the way across the country would be as interested in knowing, serving, and supporting the local community.
We need to consider who wins and who loses when we turn control of our public libraries over to private, for-profit companies. Staff members suffer in reduced wages and a limit on their ability to form unions. Patrons suffer because cutting costs means cutting services or materials or requiring payment for things that were formerly free. The entire local community suffers because the library is less likely to serve local interests or invest money back in the community. The only party who wins is the for-profit company. Rather than turning public libraries over to for-profit companies, libraries should find ways to cut costs and increase efficiency themselves or, if they need outside help, hire consultants while still maintaining their autonomy. And in fact, that’d be an even better outcome in terms of costs vs. expenditures because however much the local government spends on the contract with LSSI, LSSI is going to be spending less than that to run the library so they can turn a profit. Keeping the library public means keeping that would-be profit to a private company invested in the community.
This isn’t some sort of American flag apple pie garbage–it’s preserving our local culture, our identity as citizens instead of consumers, and our cultural repositories from the dehumanizing crush of a capitalism that favors profits over people and efficiency over assistance. Public libraries need to remain publicly funded and publicly managed if they’re going to continue to do the good they do in our communities.
I somehow fell behind on Internet stuff and have been working over the last couple weeks to catch up. I still have email to take care of and my Instapaper queue is a complete disaster, but I’ve finally caught up on all of my Google Reader feeds. Here are some things from the last month or two I found especially interesting.
“Life & Death in YA Lit” at Jacket Whys uses Wordle word clouds to pull out common terms in YA book titles and compare them to the common words in summaries of and subject headings those books. Covers featured “dead,” “dark,” “love,” and “life,” but the summaries and subject headings mostly focused on high school with dashes of friendships, certain ages, interpersonal relations, love, family, and the supernatural.
I wasn’t able to make it to ALA Annual this year, but the blog coverage of the conference was pretty thorough. I was especially bummed to not be able to attend the Printz Award ceremony since Libba Bray won with GOING BOVINE, which she talked about during the Genre Galaxy preconference at last year’s annual. But Stephanie Kuenn covered the Printz speeches for the YALSA blog, so I was at least able to watch Libba’s speech and oh man was it awesome:
Monica of Educating Alicetalked about summer reading as leisure reading while also making the case for quality literature during the school year. It was great to see an acknowledgement that all reading is reading, but that experts can still guide kids to well-written books–and teach them how to tell good literature from not-so-good.
I also really loved Sarah’s GreenBeanTeenQueen post about what characters in YA books read. She was disappointed that in so many books, characters who mention how much they like reading or how important it is always seem to be reading “the classics” and not great YA books. And while she admits that there’s nothing wrong with teens reading grownup books, I totally agree that having literate characters not reading YA novels misses a great internal advertising opportunity. Great YA lit should be recognized as great and not always put in second place after what grownups read.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In February author Zetta Elliott wrote a guest post for Justine Larbalestier’s blog in which she discusses the challenges writers of color face in a field that is largely white. She discusses problems of authenticity and white privilege (there are more books about African-Americans than there are books by African-Americans) and the difficulties in breaking into the field. I don’t see a lot of discussions about race or privilege in the library world (the literary world, sure, or the culture studies world, yes, but not nearly as often from librarians), so you should give Elliott’s post a read.
McCarry also contrasts the reception of works by male authors and the “cult of niceness”:
It goes without saying that male writers are accorded no such coddling, and that entry into this misty realm of sisterly solidarity requires acquiescence to a strict set of codes of behavior. Nice lady writers don’t rock the boat, they don’t hurt people’s feelings, and they sure as hell don’t write about topics that make other lady writers uncomfortable. But instead of promoting community, this obsession with niceness wields a potent silencing force. If nice ladies don’t say critical things about other ladies’ books, they also don’t talk about racism and sexism within the publishing industry, the enormous barriers facing writers of color and women whose work doesn’t fall into tidy and palatable genre categories, and the refusal of mainstream critics to acknowledge young adult fiction in particular as anything other than the realm of hack (read: female) writers incapable of producing “real” literature.
I’m still relatively new to the library world (I did my undergrad in math with the intent to become a math professor before realizing I needed a career with more room to have lots of interests and hobbies and with more of a human element), but I was really struck in my first semester by what seems to me to be a lack of rigor in the field–at least in public librarianship. We read an article in my collection development class that was published in a regional library journal that was just a description of a very narrow weeding project. There was no theory, no analysis, no critique–just a summary of events. The writing was poor and riddled with grammatical mistakes. It seemed shocking to me that an article of that quality was published in a peer-reviewed journal (not a magazine or a newsletter–a journal).
While it turns out that most of the library science literature dealing with public libraries isn’t as bad as that one article, it still seems like actual research and critical analysis can be difficult to find. Has this always been the case? Is it happening because of the emergence of information science from library science? Is it just public libraries that find themselves in a poverty of research? It seems to me that this ties in with librarianship’s struggle to be recognized as a profession.
I read a fantastic book last year by Roma Harris, LIBRARIANSHIP: THE EROSION OF A WOMAN’S PROFESSION (it’s out of print but can be found used or ordered through interlibrary loan) in which she discusses librarianship’s struggle to be regarded as a profession and the challenges librarians have faced because their field is traditionally viewed as a woman’s field. She draws on examples from social work and nursing, too, to show how librarianship is unique in its labeling as women’s work (in some ways we’re actually better off). Anyway, it’s a fascinating read and a lot of the following is informed by her analysis.
One way librarians have tried to achieve recognition as professionals is by adopting the traits of other professions (think doctors, lawyers, and clergy members). We institute educational standards (the required MLS), we have a professional association that adopts standards for ethical behavior, and we point to an exclusive body of knowledge in which active research is being done, all in the hopes that possessing these traits will make us a profession.
But librarianship is still often seen as women’s work, and public librarianship especially, and youth services librarianship doubly so. And so librarians aren’t afforded the prestige of other professions. I don’t mean to say that there is something inherently wrong with librarians or library research and that until those flaws are mended we will never been seen as professionals, but I do think that public library research lacks rigor. We need more library science doctoral candidates who are interested in public librarianship and youth services, whether that means encouraging current candidates to find research subjects in those areas or for people who are currently working in the field to return to school.
Many things that are regarded as “women’s work” are seen as such because they draw on traditionally feminine values like nurturing and caring and working with children. My call for rigor and criticism and research isn’t a call to discard these feminine traits and adopt more competitive masculine values and basically become men to effectively transform our profession into a more masculine one–our society devalues “women’s” values enough already. (Notice, for example, that more prestige and higher salaries are given to academic librarians, who are more likely to be men than public librarians and children’s librarians in particular–even within a “woman’s field,” being at the masculine end is preferred.)
Nurture and compassion and care for children is essential in our society and in our work as librarians to young people. But we do need to have that exclusive body of knowledge both to fit the traditional mold of a profession (if that’s the way to professionalizing librarianship) and to justify our master’s degrees being master’s degrees and not just bachelor’s degrees, but also to make us better librarians. It is through this research that we will find the best ways to serve our patrons, the best ways to understand them, the best ways to nurture them into successful adults and to create a better society.
Although she writes from the perspective of an author rather than a librarian, I agree with McCarry that we need to not be afraid to be critical in our reviews. I am not advocating nastiness or the destruction of a supportive community for writers, just higher standards and a willingness to hold authors to them. Young adult literature has improved in leaps and bounds since its emergence in the 1960s from children’s literature, but we should always be asking more. We should look for quality writing and plot construction and character development and recognize when it isn’t there. We should examine books from frameworks of race and gender. We should not be afraid to rock the boat. We should not be cruel, but we should analyze and evaluate and spark discussion and in doing so, push for more for our patrons.
I wrote a little earlier on the depiction of larger female characters on book covers and touched on the “disembodied parts” look that seems popular on books intended for girls. Karl of Txt-based Blogging wrote a post on the depiction of boys vs. girls on YA book covers (inspired by Codes of Gender, which I watched earlier this year!), concluding that, as in most media depictions, girls and women are shown as passive and off-balance whereas boys and men are given more active, strong poses. He posted a link to this post on YALSA-bk and it generated quite a bit of discussion. What do you think?
Did you see OCLC’s announcement earlier this week about an iPhone app, pic2shop, that lets users scan book barcodes and then see which local libraries have the book? I know that this won’t benefit all library patrons and that the digital divide is very real, but it’s still a neat way to get people who do have iPhones to consider the public library when they’re looking for a book–and for libraries to keep their WorldCat records up to date.
Yesterday I volunteered at the PLA Membership Booth between the first and second sessions of the day. It was a lot of fun and a nice way to just chat with people who came by. There was one librarian from Chicago who said she was so happy to see young people entering the profession who were passionate about the issues we stand for and we got into a great conversation about literacy and libraries.
I also answered a lot of questions and it just struck me as funny that I was playing reference librarian to a convention of librarians. Just like at the reference desk, most of the questions I fielded were directional and ready reference inquiries: the ALA Store is right over there under the giant hanging sign that says “ALA Bookstore.” Yes, I can look up where that publisher is and yes you can use the conference program to decide what session you’re going to and yes you may look at this map and yes you may take anything on this table and yes I know where the first aid station is and yes I’d be happy to pass along to the higher-ups that you’re loving this conference. Even we the information professionals need a little help sometimes!
I also spent a fair amount of time on Thursday and Friday cruising around the exhibit hall checking out the different vendors and publishers and other groups. Since I’m not in a position to buy anything for a library right now, I wasn’t of much interest to most of the vendors, but I did have a long and helpful conversation with the rep from Lifelong Education @ Desktop (LE@D). They provide online continuing education classes for cheap–and if you’re a resident of a member state like Indiana, you may even have the cost of your classes subsidized by your state library. The rep mentioned that most librarians seem to wind up in management almost on accident, so it’s important to develop your leadership skills all along your career so you’re prepared. She was very friendly and very helpful and I’m definitely going to keep their classes in mind after I’ve graduated.
One of the other long conversations I had in the exhibit hall was with the reps from Bluewater Productions–you may know them as the publishers of (among other things) the Female Force comics highlighting women in politics, Stephanie Meyer, and JK Rowling. Graphic novels and comics have so long been a “boy thing,” so I’m glad to see publishers opening up content to appeal to a wider audience. I wanted to know, though, if this was a women-driven initiative, so I asked the guys at the booth if they had female writers and illustrators and inkers (they do, and they’re recruiting more) and if any of the executives of Bluewater were women (half of them are). I picked up a couple of their comics and I’m looking forward to looking them over in more detail. I’m also interested in checking out Girl Comics, part of Marvel’s “Marvel Women” project; the first issue came out earlier this month.
My first conference was ALA Annual last year and I found the exhibit hall there with its roving throngs of librarians, massive vendor displays, and general warehouse proportions kind of overwhelming. The exhibit hall at PLA was a lot more manageable. I also really enjoyed being able to help and connect with librarians who visited the PLA booth–I’d highly recommend volunteering for that at the next conference you attend.