A Portrait of the Library as Treasure Island

When I was twenty-one years old, I lived in a shabby four-bedroom house in a shabby college town with six other twenty-one year olds. It was disgusting. I shared a bedroom with a fine art student named Peter Van Wie. Peter often put on jogging shorts and a headlamp to go to the art studio late at night. There he would cover himself in paint and stomp all over his canvas. He dumped woodchips and trashcans on his paintings and then peed on them. When he was finished, he’d crawl into the art studio sink and bathe himself. Sometimes he painted pictures of giraffes. Peter was weird.

When we slept, we slept on a bunk bed. After our other roommates went to bed, we would turn off all the lights and light an oil lamp. We called it “the midnight oil.” Often while burning the midnight oil, we would find new ways to entertain one another. Sometimes we arm wrestled, sometimes we had dance parties on our roof, sometimes we tried to eat all the cereal in the house so that our housemates’ mornings would be ruined, sometimes we collected forty televisions and stacked them floor to ceiling in the living room.[i] We spent too much time together.

One night, we built a treasure chest. In it we put locks of our hair, money, pages from our favorite books, pictures of motorcycles, a mix cd, and a cassette tape with a recording of our last will and testament. We spent the rest of the night walking through town writing hints and riddles, drawing pictures, and counting paces, all for the purpose of making a treasure map leading to our really cool and very valuable treasure chest. The night ended with us burying the treasure under home plate of the only baseball diamond in town. The next morning, we went to the public library and put our treasure map in an old copy of Treasure Island.

This incident has been on my mind lately. A couple weeks ago, a man at the reference desk asked for a call number for a dissertation. The dissertation was in ALF.  The patron was leaving town that day, but said he’d get it the next time he visited Bloomington. He went on to explain that while working on their Ph.Ds., he and his friends joked about how no one checked out dissertations after they were written. As a testament to this, they all put $10 bills in their dissertations with the intention of coming back years later to see if they were still there. After he left the reference desk, I requested his dissertation from ALF. Unfortunately for me, Charles Costa’s dissertation on Indiana school finance changes between 1963 and 1983 had been checked out via interlibrary loan in 1990 and the $10 was gone.

The point of these two ridiculous stories is to illustrate the unnoticed, un-assessed, and untraceable ways in which the library is used by patrons. Those uses are intrinsic to the value and charm of a library. Hiding little notes in books is an innocent and fun way to communicate with a complete stranger, who at the very least has in common with you an interest, however fleeting, in the same book. Activities like this are not essential, but they do happen and they do mean something to those involved. Of course, it is completely impractical and will never land anyone a job, lead to better grades, help someone finish a dissertation or thesis, or teach someone how to nail an interview. No meeting will ever discuss the ways in which the library can better foster patrons leaving secrets, correspondences, treasure maps, or money for another user to find in the stacks years down the line. It would be impossible to do so, and would compromise the integrity of the activity to try. As more books are moved offsite and more room is made for computer stations, offices, and study rooms, the library is becoming more practical, more useful, increasingly efficient, and staying relevant in the twenty-first century. While I think all those things are good, I can’t help but feel something is being lost along the way. Something that can’t be accessed online, or if requested before noon, picked up at Wells the same day.

-Tim Berge

Costa, C. (1984). Identification and analysis of Indiana school finance changes and trends, 1964 through 1983 (Doctoral Dissertation). Indiana University, Bloomington.

Stevenson, R.L. (1998). Treasure island. New York: Oxford University Press.

[i] Here is a video of Peter standing on our coffee table in front of 40 televisions late at night, eating what I think is cereal.

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Bitten: A History of Vampires

Long before the age of Stephanie Meyer, vampires were a horrific fixture of our culture. Movies, art, and literature have almost turned them into an obsession within the horror genre. For almost two hundred years, the lore behind these mystical beings has evolved, but many of the core facets–blood, sunlight, garlic, etc.–remain the same. And if you are truly serious about exploring these fascinating characters, you can get a great overall sense of what makes a vampire in the shelves of Wells Library.  

Where better to start our evil inquiry than Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. To be sure, it is the definitive vampire novel, popularizing many of the qualities familiar today. It introduces a mysterious aristocrat taking up residence in London, only to prey on victims for their blood. The story also establishes Abraham Van Helsing, possibly the first example of someone who has made a career of vampire hunting. Drawing heavily on a short story (John Polidori’s 1819 “The Vampyre,” which can be read here, in print or online), Dracula can absolutely be credited with bringing the horror icon into popular culture.

Let’s turn to film: two classic, early entries to the vampire saga are F.W. Murnau’s silent 1922 film Nosferatu and the 1931 film Dracula (available at our Music Library here) featuring Bela Lugosi as the Count. Both films hold up incredibly well, and are in many ways just as terrifying as modern horror films. These films continue the tradition of a mysterious Transylvanian gentleman who is more than he appears. In these films, we also witness two means by which these monsters can actually be vanquished–sunlight and stakes to the heart.

Nosferatu Shadow

The iconic scene from the 1922 film. Notice the creepy angles and shadows!

When you’re ready to make a long-term commitment, you can dive into the 90s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a story that tells just as much about being a teenager in the nineties as it does about vampires. We follow a young girl as she deals with the day-to-day mundanities of high school, followed by a nightlife of hunting and killing vampires. And don’t forget to start the spinoff, Angel, when it’s time (somewhere around season 4 of Buffy).

Buffy and Angel

Sigh. High school.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I did not mention several modern choices of vampire literature. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles is one such example, adding new themes to its characters and blurring the lines of their moralities. I also have to mention what is probably my favorite Steven King novel, Salem’s Lot, an incredible story about a town overrun by monsters after a pair of strange men set up an antique shop. Finally, there is a rule on the Internet:  If it exists, there can be romance (or something more explicit than that). At any rate, you are all familiar with the phenomenon of the Twilight franchise. Is it just me, or is the popularity of these books and movies finally slowing down?

If you consider yourself even a passing fan of horror, then you already have a grasp on one of the most famous villains of the genre. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t dig a bit deeper into the legend. It is truly a fascinating journey.

-joseph wooley

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Might I Suggest a Librarian

It’s almost Halloween and, at the last minute, you’ve been invited to some festivities and need a quick, cheap costume. Or maybe you’re just planning to sit alone at home in a costume watching animated movies and eating snack-size chocolate bars.

No judgment.

If you’re looking for an easy costume, might I suggest: a librarian? Dressing as one, that is, not asking one about a costume. Although I guess you can do that too. “But what does a librarian look like?” you ask. Fortunately, there are many types of librarians. You can choose your favorite or the one you already have clothing/accessories for. To facilitate the process, I have summarized your options.

Did you mean sexy librarian

Option one: the Sexy Librarian. Myopic with limited hair-styling abilities. Wears ill-fitting clothing and disregards proper shirt-buttoning etiquette. Loves making shushing noises despite new policy of allowing for conversational tones.

Option two: the Undead Librarian. Also wears ill-fitting clothing. Keen interest in how much knowledge a patron’s brain contains. Often found in the stacks or pushing large tomes into the hands of unsuspecting patrons while gazing longingly at their craniums.

Option three: the Magical Librarian. Carries a wand and wears a cape. Why a cape? We don’t ask. Speaks a lot of Latin and has a dragon tattoo. Brings lunch to work in a cauldron.

Option four: the Naughty Librarian. Ignores patron questions and mis-shelves books. Has fantastic shoes and brings in uncovered beverages.

Option five: the Evil Librarian. Sends patrons to nonexistent call numbers while in video chat with the powers of darkness (which uses up a lot of bandwidth). Conjures Boolean operators into searches where they aren’t helpful. Has flawless hair and an affinity for felines and dry toast, leaving crumbs everywhere.

If for some reason you don’t own any eyewear, a wand, amazing shoes, or a cat, you could go as an Everyday Librarian, who can be identified by a name sticker that reads: “Hello! My name is Librarian! How can I help you?” Can be worn with any outfit, but often paired with a cardigan. Though I recommend you also wear great shoes and a cape if you can pull it off.

-Kristin McWilliams

Recommended browsing:

This Is What a Librarian Looks Like (on Slate.com)

Excerpt from The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work


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Librarians in Cinema

Librarians in film is not a subject on which you often encounter studies. I’ve personally seen only a few movies on the subject, as well as one book, a rather slow-moving tome titled The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999:

51W54rBCi1L._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_This book lists every movie featuring a librarian character available at the time and in the English language. The book reached some interesting conclusions. Almost all the librarians in these films were female, and they were very “typically” so. In addition, many of the movies were romantic comedies: the couple would exchange verbal barbs and humorous scenes, eventually marrying and living happily ever after. Being a gainfully-employed working woman was not the end game for these characters; in fact, it was the leaving of the library that brought about their happy endings.


Donna Reed as Mary from It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

The spinsters of the library were also well-documented. These were usually rather frumpy background characters: mid-thirties or older, modest clothes, glasses, and buns (if they were women) or balding domes (if they were men). In most cases, these characters tended either to be mistreated or to themselves be unpleasant.

As time progressed, both the older librarian, with her tightly-wound bun and stern expression, and the young, pretty, romance-seeking librarian became staples of these movies. Both hailed back to the silent film era, and both tropes continued long into color films. Truly, the background female characters were almost always less attractive in some way, thereby making the star female stand out all the more. It just seems telling that librarianship should so frequently be shown in this dichotomy.

Most interestingly, however, are the positive relationships portrayed between librarians. In many early movies, women could not overcome their various stations to build friendships, and there were not many close relationships between women shown on screen. While there were many strict or difficult bosses, more often than not librarian coworkers were shown getting along and supporting each other. These were often pleasant, supportive female relationships that continued throughout the movie, whether or not the younger girl left the library to get married. There were even a few platonic relationships between coworkers, allowing women to display they could have and maintain friendships with their own gender as well as non-romantic relationships with men. This portrayal is impressive both for classic films and modern ones.

Overall, however, these films featured women waiting around for their happily-ever-afters. They may have been respectfully employed, but they were not truly happy with it. Sometimes, in pursuit of their happy endings, these sheltered female librarians made the poor choice of going for the first man they saw. They were often given glasses, buns, and modest clothes to easily identify them as librarians, and younger librarians would only wear their glasses for short periods of time.

At first, women were shown as moral in the librarian role, then overbearing about their rules, then finally as intellectual equals to (or betters of) their romantic partners. Being the brains and the eye candy is a very common trope in movies today, especially for women, and librarians are no exception to this rule. As for men in the libraries, they are often shown as incompetent, bumbling, even comedic.

While The Image of Librarians in Cinema may have stopped at 1999, it’s hard to say depictions of librarians in cinema have really changed much in the last sixteen years.


Rachel Weisz as Evelyn from The Mummy Returns, 2001

-Margaret Agnew

Tevis, R., and Tevis, B. (2005). The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

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Humanizing Librarianship: A Reflection on the Need for Reflection

IM Patron, Hear Me Ask: Hi, I was trying to access an article from the Journal of Underpaid Adjuncts called, “I Wrote This: Hire Me, Please? Pretty Pretty Pwease?”, but OneSearch keeps turning up thousands of articles–just how many articles like this can there be?? Halp!!

IM Librarian, Destroyer of Weeds: Hi there, thanks for holding. Could you repeat your order?

No doubt, online services like our “Ask a Librarian” chat reference can be very convenient in a pinch. Need help finding an article or two for a paper on the fly? You’re in luck–reference operators are standing by, eagerly awaiting your next text or instant message! Yet, speaking for myself, I have to wonder what can get lost in the process of making reference services maximally convenient and efficient, whether it be in the name of promoting “information access” or some other favorite pastime. I ask, in particular, how some of our ideas on librarianship–our reasons for being librarians; our values, our visions, and our ambitions–contribute to the dehumanization and devaluation of librarians and patrons alike.

For me personally, the IM reference service merely foregrounds the impersonal, transactional form of exchange that characterizes much of our social interaction, a state of affairs for which IMs alone are hardly responsible (as anyone who has worked in retail or customer service knows first-hand). I find myself recalling a particular passage from Franz Kafka’s Amerika.[1] As the protagonist Karl Rossmann is about to get thrown out of Hotel Occidental (where he had just been fired from his job as a lift-boy), he ends up in the porters’ lodge. He observes the assistant porters, whose duty it is to dispense information of all kinds to the frenetic shuffle of the manifold hotel guests, with arms outstretched and hands grasping or signing impatiently. With guests always speaking over each other to get out this question or that demand, the assistant porters cannot afford to pause: They dare not stop the deluge of information spilling from their mouths, not even for the sake of clarity, until an exhausting hour has passed and they must rotate out, with nary a guest noticing the switch until much later. Behold, in all their glory, our information specialists avant la lettre!

In the porters’ lodge, we witness a perfectly efficient and bustling information system–along with the mutual dehumanization of guests and workers: Everyone is equally replaceable, equally disposable, as far as this system is concerned. What’s more, the system is not entirely imposed from without; rather, it comes into being, and stays in being, through the hurried exchanges that occur between myriad guests and overburdened workers.

I can’t help but suspect the current devalued state of librarianship is in no small part the product of the ideas and assumptions we ourselves have allowed to shape the profession: ideas on librarianship, on our social and historical circumstances, on human nature and the ways of this world of ours. How might we humanize librarianship? We cannot begin to answer such a question until we engage ourselves in thought and reflection. Almost 40 years ago, André Cossette wrote in his Humanism and Libraries, “Library science is still in a time of pragmatism. Librarians know how to do their work, but do not respond in a systematic way to the primordial question: why do this work?”[2] That question continues to endure for good reason. In striving to answer it, we might not simply reinvigorate our work with renewed purpose and meaning, but humanize it as well.

-Dean Ericksen

[1]: Franz Kafka, The Man who Disappeared (America), trans. Ritchie Robertson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 129-31.
[2]: André Cossette, Humanism and Libraries: An Essay On the Philosophy of Librarianship, trans. and ed. Rory Litwin (Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2009), 17.

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Who is Ada Lovelace?

In a recent interview with Erica Heilman, librarian Jessamyn West remarked:

“Certain ways of thinking about things make it more easy for you to adapt to a world that technology has a role in…You have to understand that the operating system is abstracting this in a way that’s supposed to make it easy for you, but you have to be able to understand the metaphor: ‘When I click and drag this thing,’ there’s actually not a physical thing that’s happening…the computer’s showing you a picture to help you understand and help you get organized…”

For most users, this is a given. We do our computing in a lush, hyperlinked world of streaming video, .gifs, and audio, where the metaphors are understood and made invisible by that understanding. Programs make the metaphor work. A far cry from computing’s humble origins, which go as far back as 2400 BCE with the Roman abacus or the Greek Antikythera mechanism of the second century BCE. In fact, we can trace the origin of the word “computer” to a 1613 text, The yong mans gleanings. In the 18th century and beyond, “computer” referred to the people, often women, who compiled tables of mathematical calculations for astronomy and navigation. In the 19th century, before the advent of digital computing, Charles Babbage was working on his Analytical Engine, a theoretical machine that could execute complicated equations—if it were ever built.

Ada Lovelace corrected mistakes in Babbage’s designs and wrote an algorithm that would allow the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers, computing’s first program.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to Anne Milbanke, a mathematician, and Lord Byron, the notorious rock star of 19th century verse. Shortly after her birth, her parents separated and Byron exiled himself to Greece where he died in 1824. Ada was raised by her mother and tutored almost exclusively in math. As a young woman, she befriended Babbage, as well as Mary Somerville (a well-regarded mathematician, scientist, and suffragette), Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday, and Charles Dickens. In 1842, she set to translating Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq., an 1840 lecture delivered by Babbage in Turin, in Italian, as recorded by Luigi Menabrea. She expanded this translation nearly threefold with notes, which include the first computer program. Unfortunately, Ada never got to see her program in action, as Babbage’s machine was never built. Ada died in 1852 of cancer.

Almost a century later, Alan Turing cited Ada Lovelace in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Turing posed the question, “Can machines think?” While outlining the limitations that others have posed to the question of thinking machines, he described what he called Lady Lovelace’s Objection. In her words: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.” Turing’s paper posed the Imitation Game, often referred to as the Turing Test, in which a human talks to two interlocutors—one of whom is human, the other machine—and tries to determine which is which.

Ada Lovelace’s translation of Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. was republished in 1953. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer programming language ADA as tribute to Lovelace, and the British Computer Society annually awards the Lovelace medal for notable contributions to computer science and holds Lovelace lectures given by those awarded.

Jean Jennings (left), Marlyn Wescoff (center), and Ruth Lichterman program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, by plugging and unplugging cables and adjusting switches.

Jennings (left), Wescoff (center), and Lichterman program ENIAC. Corbis Images.

There are a number of wonderful women whose contributions to the history of computing, like Ada’s, are not often discussed but deserve celebration. Grace Hopper, a Yale Ph.D. and Navy Admiral, developed a compiler for the UNIVAC computer that translated source code into machine-readable language and helped develop the programming language COBOL, still used in business, finance, and government computing. Hopper also popularized the term “debugging,” coined after she removed a moth stuck in the Mark 2 computer at Harvard University. While Hopper was working at Harvard, Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman—all former human computers, calculating trajectories for firing tables—were programming, debugging, and maintaining the ENIAC computer for the U.S. Army. At the time, photographs of the six working with ENIAC circulated without identifying the women or their roles. Jean Bartik, then Betty Jennings, remarked in a 2010 interview it was not until 1986 that they received recognition for their accomplishments.

Graph paper with notes by Grace Hopper with moth taped to paper, below the moth a note reads "First actual case of being found."

“First actual case of bug being found.”

This year, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 13th, to remember Ada but also to celebrate the hard work of a number of women whose contributions to computing, science, and technology have gone unsung. Learn more about Ada Lovelace Day at findingada.com.

-Thom Sullivan

For more information, please check out:

Abbate, Janet. Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation In Computing.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Available online.

Gleick, James. The Information : a History, a Theory, a Flood. 1st Vintage Books ed., 2012. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Available at Wells.

Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators : How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition. 2014. Available at Wells.

Misa, Thomas J. Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley , 2010. Available online.

“The Ada Lovelace Episode: Who was the Enchantress of Numbers?” Stuff You Missed in History Class.

Woodfield, Ruth. Women, Work and Computing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Available online.

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Legos in the Library

If you wandered into the basement of Wells Library this week, you may have witnessed something peculiar: 10 librarians playing with Legos. Megan Lotts, Art Librarian at Rutgers University, visited our campus to facilitate her #LeGOMAKE workshop. This session focused on creative problem-solving and hands-on learning, with 100 pounds of Legos as tools. Some of the activities included visualizing what makes our library great and the different challenges we face. The workshop culminated with participants joining forces to construct their ideal library.

Legos in the library isn’t as unusual as you might think. This type of activity is popping up in libraries across the country under the blanket term “makerspace.” This word has many definitions, but the key elements include hands-on learning, creativity, and collaboration. I like school librarian Diana Rendina’s definition: “A makerspace is a place where students can gather to create, invent, tinker, explore and discover using a variety of tools and materials.” Things you might find in a makerspace include sewing machines, lock-picking supplies, electronics kits, and laser engravers.

Makerspaces are part of a DIY crusade; they reflect our desire to step away from our screens and get our hands dirty. Making encourages learning that is tactile and highly participatory. So you might be wondering, what do libraries have to do with makerspaces? Libraries are a natural fit for several reasons. Now more than ever, librarians are looking for ways to share information that is increasingly less text-based. In other words, the printed word is just one of the ways our users interact with information. To better serve, we have to consider other mediums and alternative learning styles. Makerspaces encourage us to think outside the book.

Accessibility is another key factor. According to the NMC Horizon Report for 2015, “University libraries are in the unique position to offer a central, discipline-neutral space where every member of the academic community can engage in creative activities.” Certainly the School of Fine Arts would be better served to offer a printmaking workshop and the School of Informatics would be well-equipped to teach computer programming, but those spaces are designed to serve their departments, not the greater campus community. Libraries, on the other hand, belong to everyone.

Makerspaces are a personal passion of mine, and I hope to help develop our own makerspace right here in Wells Library. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about makerspaces, check out the following libraries that are leading the way…

Chattanooga Public Library – The 4th Floor
Madison Public Library – The Bubbler
DC Public Library – The Labs
Library Service Friesland – Frysklab
Hillsborough County Public Library – The Hive

-Leanne Mobley

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Information Literacy in Defense of Wikipedia

It has been a little over a month now since I started working at the West Tower circulation desk. I cover a couple of the evening shifts and the Saturday morning shift, when things are a bit slower. It is during this time I usually find myself aimlessly clicking around everyone’s favorite website. I am of course talking about our old friend Wikipedia. The things I typically read would only interest myself and other Gilded Age/Progressive Era buffs out there. With increasing frequency, though, I have been finding myself going around Wikipedia in search of things that relate to the books patrons come to either check out or return. It is wonderful to see all the different things that come across our desk throughout the day.

While I was meandering through Wikipedia on a journey led by some patron’s book (on the power struggle between Japan and the United States and how it ultimately culminated in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War), a thought popped into my head: How did this one man’s desire for information literacy affect the world around him? However it may sound, I realized this man’s desire for literacy does not only affect him; others were benefitted by his actions. To step even further back, one could say his pursuit of knowledge benefits the community as a whole. While this man increases his knowledge of one small aspect of late 19th and early 20th century diplomacy, surely he will share this knowledge. Perhaps he will tell someone about the paper he is undoubtedly writing, and this will spark the inquisitive mind of another.

Put simply, if one person enthusiastically strives to achieve ever-greater knowledge, won’t that thirst wear off on at least some of the people he or she comes into contact with while doing so? Knowledge is a powerful thing to say the least, and a well-informed citizenry is what ensures the stability of our community here at IU and around the globe. Librarians should be at the forefront of the struggle for knowledge, the fight against ignorance. So the next time someone returns a book or checks one out while you’re staffing the desk, take a few moments to indulge in your love of Wikipedia. Click around, learn something new, and tell a friend about it. If we all work together to expand the general knowledge of the people around us, that’s at least one constructive thing we’ve accomplished today.

-Brian Plank

Some interesting resources NOT from Wikipedia that are worth checking out:

Information Literacy: http://www.ala.org/acrl/issues/infolit
Japanese-American Relations:http://www.jstor.org/stable/1871772

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What Dewey Left Us

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

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).

Adelaide Hasse

Adelaide Hasse

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.

-Carin Graves


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.

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To Badger or Not to Badger

“I knew I should just turn this question over to a reference librarian. You guys are like badgers.” I received this compliment (?) from a patron when I finally tracked down the article he was looking for after about 30 minutes of searching. At first, I wasn’t sure how to take this, but after thinking for a few minutes, I decided I loved it.

Badgers may not look like much to the casual observer, but when cornered, they can be fierce fighters.

When comparing librarians and badgers, I prefer Roald Dahl’s Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox over Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. While Graham’s badger is a gruff hermit who very reluctantly agrees to help Toad, Dahl’s Badger captures the “good-in-a-pinch” nature of everyone’s favorite Mustelidae. Badger is friendly, loyal, tenacious, and a little bit goofy, character traits befitting a reference librarian.


Being a reference assistant means each shift can bring an onslaught of mind-numbing questions about the location of restrooms and drinking fountains, or my personal favorite: “Do you have books here?” While those questions can sometimes take a toll, it is the in-depth research questions that allow me to take pride in my work. Instead of simply handing off these difficult questions to a subject librarian, I do my best badger impression and fight until I simply cannot find the answer. (Unless the question is about science because…you know…it’s science.)

After spending hours at the reference desk, it can be easy to slip into grumpy librarian mode. While it may seem more interesting to figure out what Disney princess you are than to point a student in the direction of the Digitization Lab, we have to remain open to helping. At the beginning of each semester, new students are learning about using the library. Our hope is that, by helping them with mundane questions early in the semester, we will see them returning in November or April when research papers are due and our expertise is needed.

Over the past three years, I have worked as a reference assistant at two different academic libraries. Despite hundreds of questions that could have been answered by a sign, I have not lost my joy for working with patrons, especially students. Attacking each question eagerly, and working hard to provide the best answer possible, should be the goal of every reference librarian. While this is not easy, neither is defending your neighborhood from three mean farmers. Just ask Badger.

-Ryan Frick

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