Its impossible to think about the library profession
and not visualise a woman in horn-rimmed glasses. I think
of that image a lot these days as I slide my glasses up my
That image, negative as it seems, is so ingrained
in peoples minds that it is hard to imagine that there
are men in the library profession and that historically speaking,
in the ancient world, librarians were men. Librarians
in modern times owe a great deal to men like Melvil Dewey,
who came up with a system of classification named after him,
but women have also left an indelible mark on the profession.
They havent had the glory of Dewey, but they have been
in the trenches working on the grassroots level, in spite
of the derogatory and sometimes demeaning classification of
librarianship as womens work. Being a librarian is simply
one way that women have penetrated the work place and created
an environment conducive to lifelong learning.
It is important to remember that women took over librarian
jobs from men. At least that is how it was in the ancient
world. Being a librarian in ancient Sumeria would have required
brawn. It took muscles to file clay tablets with cuneiform
all day, and so being a librarian was a mans job.
Its not difficult to imagine how papyrus would have
revolutionised the library: no more heavy clay tablets to
stack on shelves.
Still, men were librarians when papyrus was the rage. Fast
forward to modern history, the advent of the printing press
and we still had male librarians. And then something
wonderful happened: childrens literature. Once
childrens literature came into vogue, we established
new relationships between women and books. Traditionally,
women have always been the heart of the home. They read
the stories to children. This tradition would have been
firmly entrenched by the time social libraries developed in
Social libraries would have offered women a chance to mingle
and gain access to valuable information for their self enlightenment
and their own pleasure. Because libraries have been synonymous
with book storage until the relatively recent advent of computers,
a library really became like a big home where children would
come to listen to stories or have books read to them. It
would become a place where women and children mingled and
combined social and learning activities.
As libraries became more academic, this too would naturally
fall into womens domain. Until recently, men were
hardly ever associated with homework supervision. This
was another traditional task that fell into womens laps.
And so women became the centre of education outside of the
home, as well as inside of the home.
Much has been made of the fact that men have always had the
big, organisational jobs in the library while women have been
entrusted with the every day running of the library. This
too falls within the traditional realm of how the home has
been run. Men set up the structure; women carried it
out. Unfortunately, the hierarchy of these tasks resulted
in the same problems we see in most professions: the
few men who are librarians make more money than women.
Women librarians have always quietly gone about their jobs
oblivious or perhaps just not caring about the negative stereotypic
images associated with them. This is partly because they
have known how important they are as guardians of democracy.
When I was offered the job of librarian I thought it would
be a good place for me to use the research skills I developed
in anthropology, the media skills I developed in journalism
and the writing skills I have developed over a 30-year career
Everyone I met said, Oh, youll be so good
in the library because you know so much about books.
Like most librarians, I just nodded, knowing that being a
librarian is far more than knowing about books. A librarian
is an information specialist. She knows what is the best
way to find information, whether it is in a book or on the
The advent of the Internet and the technological challenges
we face in this era make this an exciting time to be a librarian.
It will be interesting to see if the thrust towards technology
will create a levelling effect for men in the library profession
who have been traditionally stereotyped as computer experts
As libraries become more technical, I suspect more men will
become librarians. Whether or not they will be able to penetrate
that legacy that women have developed for the library as a
place to come to explore the world and learn to love books
and learning remains to be seen.
Libraries have needed the valuable input of men and minorities
to give patrons different perspectives and the fact that there
have not been more men or more minorities represented in most
of the libraries of the world is sad. On the other hand, every
library has gained from the loving, nurturing spirit of women
who have, in times of peace and times of war, always been
the guiding force of peace and democracy.
Youll never convince me that a women became librarians
because men didnt want the job. I think we cleverly
and quietly eased our way into a positions that naturally
felt like ours. We created a quiet revolution that the world
has not yet recognised.