As my colleague and classmate David mentioned in his post, librarianship is often seen as a feminized form of labor. A Google image search for ‘Librarian’ does indeed bring up largely women, as well as some computers that could be described as antique. And, as Halloween draws nearer, the suggested search for ‘Librarian Costume’ is, at best, offensive.
This feminization of librarianship in fact goes all the way back to the beginnings of the profession.
In 1887, Melvil Dewey opened his School of Library Economy under the auspices of Columbia College. Dewey is perhaps best remembered as the creator of the Dewey Decimal System, which revolutionized library organization and preceded such innovations as the Library of Congress Classification. Dewey also has a place in Librarianship history not only as one of the main instigators for the creation of ALA, but also because many of the first students at his library school were female. The admission of women into the program created a rift between Dewey and the administrators at Columbia College, which led in part to his removal from the College and transfer to the New York State Library (Beck, 1996; Wiegand, 1996).
Early on in the profession, feminine qualities were either excused or lauded for being particularly pertinent to the labor of librarianship. Of course, Dewey was really only admitting college-bred women who were presumably white and from the middle to upper classes (See: Dewey, 1886). It is important to remember that the early history of the profession excluded the marginalized, as did many other professions beginning around the same time. Beyond this, Dewey was a known anti-Semite (Kendall, 2014).
Melvil Dewey, 1891
Further, Dewey’s actions toward women during his tenure at Columbia College and the New York State Library speak volumes. In her 1996 article in the journal American Libraries, Clare Beck relays the results of her archival study of the correspondence between Dewey and some of his colleagues.
In 1906, murmurs of inappropriate behavior began to surround Dewey. It was revealed that Dewey had reportedly sexually harassed four women on an ALA cruise. Furthermore, significant and troubling correspondence exists between Dewey and a head of a division at New York Public Library, Adelaide Hasse. Dewey repeatedly invited Hasse to visit him in Albany, presumably to discuss professional matters, as Hasse was attempting to publish with the ALA. After her visit, Dewey wrote to her praising her voice and appearance (Beck, 1996).
Beck found this bit of correspondence odd for two reasons. First, flattery towards Hasse in her correspondence typically pertained to her work, as is appropriate among colleagues. Second, the length of time it took for Hasse to respond compared to her response times for other correspondence led Beck to intuit she was avoiding answering the letter until the last possible moment–when Hasse had to leave town for Maine. Ultimately, this was brought to the attention of ALA. Hasse did not appreciate this correspondence being made public knowledge, perhaps because she did not want a scandal to tarnish her image. Dewey, for his part, performed some classic gas-lighting, stating that “[p]ure women will understand my ways” (quoted in Beck, 1996, p. 62).
The reporter Joshua Kendall also uncovered troubling behavior in his research on Dewey for his book America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation (2013). For the American Libraries Magazine (2014), Kendall writes that Dewey was a womanizer and required photos of applicants to his library school, saying that Dewey often remarked, “you cannot polish a pumpkin” (p. 54).
However, Kendall seems somewhat sympathetic to Dewey, describing him as a “Lothario” and his womanizing as a “character flaw” (p. 54). He also describes Dewey’s advances as “surprise squeezes,” (p. 54) an insulting attempt at turning sexual harassment into a joke. (It is also worth mentioning that Kendall’s book about the seven “obsessives” who built America includes only white people, six of whom are men.)
Despite the troubled past of our profession, sexual harassment in the workplace must be taken seriously, as should the marginalization of librarians through feminization of their labor. Further, we must refrain from being cavalier about our most famous problematic founder, even as we appreciate his contributions.
Beck, C. (1996). A ‘Private’ Grievance against Dewey. American Libraries, 27(1), 62.
Dewey, M. (1886). Librarianship as a profession for college-bred women: an address delivered before the Association of Collegiate Alumnæ, on March 13, 1886. Boston : Library Bureau.
Kendall, J. C. (2013). America’s Obsessives : The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Kendall, J. (2014). Melvil Dewey, compulsive innovator: the decimal obsessions of an information organizer. American Libraries, (3-4). 52.
Wiegand, W. (1996). Dewey Declassified: A Revelatory Look at the ‘Irrepressible Reformer’. (cover story). American Libraries, 27(1), 54.