Monday 14th August, 2006

Debbie Jacob
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The quiet revolution

It’s 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 nose.

That image, negative as it seems, is so ingrained in people’s 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 haven’t 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 women’s 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 man’s job.

It’s 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: children’s literature.  Once children’s 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 the US.   

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 women’s domain. Until recently, men were hardly ever associated with homework supervision. This was another traditional task that fell into women’s 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 in writing.

Everyone I met said, “Oh, you’ll 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 Internet.

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 over women.

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.

You’ll never convince me that a women became librarians because men didn’t 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.

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