The Evolving Image of Librarians

According to a 2009 statistic from the U.S. census, roughly 83% of librarians today are women. Shocked? Yeah, me neither. In my own experience venturing into local libraries and even small-shop book sellers, it’s natural to see a woman peeking over the counter. It’s not something I’ve ever thought too critically about, but when you compare the 2009 figure to the late 1800’s, when the public libraries began sprouting up across the U.S., it’s clear there’s been a dramatic shift. What was once a prestigious male-dominated field is now occupied predominantly by women, leaving current book lovers and library enthusiasts to wonder why.

The story behind female librarianship and the stereotypes it spawned begins, unfortunately, how many American narratives begin: with men. After the Civil War, and in a large part thanks to Melvil Dewey’s OCPD organizational system, libraries began emerging across the states. Dewey was personally responsible for opening a library school at Columbia College, and is often also credited with creating a space for women in this school. However, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s libraries and academia more generally, were presupposed as masculine pursuits. The idea of bringing women into libraries was scoffed at, and not even debated until Dewey mentioned what a cost saver it would be.

Although we can give him credit for bringing women into library school and librarianship, we can’t call his motives pure or free of sexism.

Image courtesy of Library Games


In the dawn of public libraries, the skill set required to be a librarian was thought to be an inherently male ability. Spoiler alert: at the time, that ‘endowment’ was thought to be more physical than mental. With this in mind, Dewey held his female students to higher achievement levels: they had to earn their titles. Female students were subject to higher standards and, according to Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, sexual harassment from Dewey. After a number of incidents with his students (the final straw being a harassment scandal at an ALA conference), and in tandem with complaints about blatant anti-Semitic and racist behavior, Dewey was booted from ALA.

Although his legacy seems to trump this other narrative, it’s worth pointing out that the emergence of women in the field was riddled with sexism and discrimination

After Dewey’s departure, the image of the women he had brought into the work force lingered. Scholars, women who worked rather than staying home, women who were bread winners rather than care takers, unwed women – ‘spinsters’ as they were perceived – became the image of the librarian. This image was one of shushing old ladies with tight buns on their head and plenty of cats at home. And if it wasn’t the spinster image at the face of the title, it was that of the seductress, which pervaded pop culture as America entered the post-censorship age of pornography in the second half of the 20th century.

Nobody’s librarian ever


Now, the 83% female population of librarians hovers somewhere between the spinster and the seductress. In my mind I visualize a librarian as the ‘cool girl’ job of some hipster bookworm who probably has awesome music taste, just one cat, and maybe even a tattoo.

Kinda like Mary from Party Girl (Despite advocating for Dewey)


But then again, even the recent 2014 series, The Librarians, gives us only the super-sexy and ever alluring face of librarianship. Librarians are still trapped in some kind of representation and we still have a lot of work to do, but if it’s any consolation, the stereotypes we see of librarians and booksellers alike are more diverse and open to humor (i.e. Portlandia bookstore skit).

It’s a stereotype in flux, one which has moved away from strictly men, but still needs to get past the old lady or the oversexed teen, and towards an archetype marked by intelligence and interests rather than gender and physicalities. 


Featured image courtesy of IFC.