The library profession today is, and has been for over a century, heavily female. When Melvil Dewey inaugurated the new School of Library Economy at Columbia College in 1887, only three out of his twenty students were male. From then on, women formed the majority of students in formal librarian training programs. During the Progressive Era at the turn of the century, as the library system developed and expanded, middle-class women were encouraged to become librarians to bring literacy, education and civic virtue to the masses. This was at a time when many Americans still believed that women were unsuited for professions such as law or medicine and few women trained for them. Being librarians allowed women to “transcend confining stereotypes of womanhood without rejecting traditional gender roles or family responsibilities” (Maack, 1998, p. 55). Rather than challenging traditional gender roles, most librarians “believed that the professional woman should affirm rather than reject her gender identity” (Maack, 1998, p. 56).
By 1920, the year women got the vote, over eighty-eight percent of librarians listed on the census were women (Maack, 1998, p. 52). Why were women so readily accepted as librarians, to the point of quickly becoming the majority of the profession, when there was great resistance to women entering other professions such as law and medicine? I think that the main reason, apart from the fact that it was difficult to recruit male library students, was that women are traditionally seen to be nurturers and caregivers who put others before themselves. Becoming librarians allowed women to fulfill this gender role, unlike, for example, becoming a lawyer or an engineer or a scientist. And unlike those professions, where “feminine” behavior is often an obstacle, being traditionally “feminine,” i.e., considerate and nurturing, can help make one a better librarian, as one of the main roles of many librarians is helping patrons find what they need.
It was not necessarily a bad thing for the library profession to be majority female and associated with feminine gender roles. Not only were many of the new women librarians full of crusading spirit, but the lack of male domination in the profession allowed both female and male librarians to “[create] a new professional paradigm that was fundamentally different from the authoritarian model of the ‘liberal professions’ like law and medicine” (Maack, 1998, p. 59). Librarian Mary Eileen Ahern was the founding editor of the monthly journal Public Libraries, which was inaugurated in 1896 to serve the needs of small libraries. Ahern’s journal emphasized a patron-centered approach “infused with a strong sense of service to the individual reader” (Maack, 1998, p. 54). For example, one article by a woman cataloguer in 1901 said that “‘a catalog to be most useful, must be made for the people who are to use it, and not for some theoretically ideal people contemplated by codes of rules’” (Maack, 1998, p. 54). An 1899 article by Minneapolis librarian Gratia Countryman “[urged] that libraries keep rules and red tape to a minimum…[and] stressed that ‘the books belong to the people’ and the librarian, who is their intermediary, must learn ‘to be of the people, not apart or above them’” (Maack, 1998, p. 54). In her extensive study of female librarians in the American West, Joanne Passet concluded that despite being moderates on the issue of women’s suffrage, ‘“they did blend feminist ideas with rational values and an ethic of caring…Operating within the constraints of time, place and gender, they transcended female stereotypes as they pursued their vision of library service”’ (Maack, 1998, p. 55), as did women librarians in other parts of the United States (Maack, 1998, p. 55). So while woman librarians largely chose to affirm rather than reject traditional women’s roles, they were still imbued with the feminist belief that women should not only be well-educated but also participate in public life. As the role of librarian was largely conceived as a “helping,” and therefore appropriately feminine role, the two were not seen as contradictory.
The library profession’s association with femininity may play a negative role in some ways, however, by discouraging from the library profession both men and women who don’t identify with traditional female roles. I am a woman who does not identify with traditional female roles, and yet I am planning to go into librarianship, one of the most heavily female professions. While I am glad to help patrons, playing the “feminine” role of always putting others’ needs before one’s own, this can lead to burnout. While being a good librarian often means being “feminine,” i.e., caring and nurturing, having too many patrons to “care” for can lead to alienation and disillusionment. A librarian, especially if she is a woman, must learn how to attend to the needs of patrons in a sympathetic manner without feeling like a doormat.
Does the association of the library profession with women and with “feminine” roles deter men from becoming librarians? The relatively low status and pay of the library profession is partly due to the fact that it is majority female and perpetuates the situation by discouraging men from entering the profession. It’s possible that if more men went into the library profession the pay and status would improve; on the other hand, more men might be willing to enter the profession only if the pay and status were improved beforehand. Not only are most librarians women, but most are middle-class white women. Since libraries serve as repositories of knowledge, a more diverse population of librarians would help create richer and more diverse collections at libraries. Attracting more men, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, people of color and other minorities to the library profession would also result in librarians who brought other experiences and viewpoints to the profession. They would not only bring an understanding of those backgrounds to their own work, they would help enlighten middle-class white librarians on the unique challenges faced by low-income people and people of color, who would thus have librarians who were more responsive to their needs.
The majority of librarians are still middle-class white women and have been for over a century. While many of these women have excelled in the library profession by upholding the traditional female roles of helper and nurturer, the association of these roles with librarianship has had some undesirable effects as well. One is the woman librarian as doormat, which can often lead to burnout.
Another is that men are discouraged from entering the profession. The library profession would be better off if it included more people of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds as these people would bring a richer variety of experiences to the profession and be better at responding to the needs of patrons from those backgrounds.
Niles Maack, M. (1998). “Gender, Culture, and the Transformation of American Librarianship, 1890-1920.” Libraries & Culture 33(1), 51-61