Working as a Librarian in the 1960s

Storytime at the Library with Margaret McPherson (Children’s Librarian).
Canterbury Public Library, May 1968.
Christchurch Star Collection, CCL-Star-525.

In the golden age of advertising, depicted on the small screen in the scenes of Mad Men, women’s career choices were limited. Vocational advice handbooks urged the female reader to pursue a career as a secretary, a teacher, a nurse, and, less commonly, as a librarian (at least until she married, as marriage and family were perceived to be her primary responsibility). A young woman in the early 1960s considering librarianship as a career may have come across So You Want to Be a Librarian, written by Sarah Leslie Wallace and published in 1963. 

The book offers the standard fare associated with vocational guidance: information about library science programs, the nature and the functions of library work, the various types of libraries, etc. What is remarkable is that Wallace (who also authored Patrons are People: How to Be a Model Librarian in 1945) very carefully considered her audience while composing the text, which is a detailed portrait of the profession and the librarians of the 1960s.

Quite briefly (but unusually for that decade), Wallace subtly describes the difficulties faced by ambitious women who desired to climb the ranks in their field, in a small section entitled Man vs. Woman.” She explains that men command higher salaries and predominate in administrative posts, but not wanting to discourage women from entering the profession, she concludes the section in the following manner:

Women do hold responsible and well-paid positions in libraries, however. They are listened to in professional associations and are important in the shaping of goals of librarianship.

Wallaces experiences in the course of her professional career may have influenced her writing. She begun her outstanding career as a reference librarian at Minneapolis Public Library (MPL), taught several courses at the College of St. Catherine Library School, published extensively in professional journals (including Library Journal and Wilson Library Bulletin). In her later years she was appointed as the public relations officer at the MPL, but was never promoted to a senior administrative position.    

For me, reading So You Want to Be a Librarian over forty years later was an illuminating—albeit dated—introduction to the profession. I first read it in 2008, having found the book among other titles on library and information science of the thirteenth floor of the John P. Robarts Library. I consider it to be a cherished discovery—amidst the quiet stacks of “Fort Book,” I was introduced to the long history of a profession that appeared to be distinctively hospitable to women yet struggled to reconcile their numerical dominance with claims to professional status and prestige. 

Salaries of Toronto Public Librarians in the 1960s

While looking for a book I needed for an essay at the John M. Kelly Library I, as always, drifted toward the books in the “Z” class (Bibliography, Library Science). In most libraries on campus, with the exception of Robarts and the Inforum, the library science section is small, usually outdated and inevitably relegated to the last shelves of the general collections. Nonetheless, there are quite a few quirky titles that I sometimes find just by browsing this nook of the library.

Annette Branch, 1953.
Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

Last time, I came across Libraries of Metropolitan Toronto: A Study of Library Service Prepared for the Libraries Trustees’ Council of Toronto and District by Dr. Ralph Shaw, which was published in 1960. The Council hired him to conduct a survey of library service in Metropolitan Toronto (which at that time referred to the former City of Toronto and the inner suburbs).

Metro Council received funding from the province to operate the local library systems and wanted to find out which areas of service needed grants the most. Shaw was a prominent professor of Library Science at Rutgers University Library School and was chosen due to his broad experience.

While this book would be useful in the study of history of the Toronto Public Library, what interested me the most was one of the recommendations that Shaw makes following his report: “Professional staff salaries should be raised to the level recommended by the Canadian Library Association Standards.” According to this report, there was a shortage of professional librarians in the 1950s.

Scarborough Public Book Mobile, 1956. 
Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

The shortage worsened in the 1960s, coinciding with expansions of public library systems in the suburbs across Canada and the US (among other factors). Librarians’ wages did improve throughout that time: on average, a junior librarian in his/her first job took home $2,135 per year in 1950 and $4,406 ten years later, as Dr. Bertha Bassam outlines in the appendix to her book, The Faculty of Library Science, University of Toronto and Its Predecessors, 1911–1972.

The rise in the average beginning salary over the decade might seem substantial, until we compare it to other occupations at that time: on economic, professional, and social levels, librarians were considered to be something along the line of dignified secretaries.

For comparison, in 1958, a messenger boy earned $2,292 annually, switchboard operator, $2,800, stenographer, $2,808, and secretary, $3,696 (in fact, Shaw pointedly states that “[t]he average salary for secretaries in Toronto was above the beginning rate for librarians in some of the libraries… as of 1958.” He defends his conclusions by stating that junior librarians that graduate from the program in which he teaches on average earn $4,500 and above in their first job.

Gladys Allison Building, 5126 Yonge Street, 1960s.
City of Toronto Archives, City of North York Fonds 217, Series 249, File 130.

In addition, gaining professional experience did not mean that the salary of junior librarian would improve with time, although Shaw provides a list of different pay scales depending on experience (Librarian 1, 2, 3, and 4). However, staff with more than ten years of service were earning less than the minimum standard recommended by the CLA.

At that time, individuals desiring to work as professional librarians (as recognized by the American Library Association) were required to complete a one-year, post-graduate Bachelor of Library Science (BLS) degree. Certainly, the educational investment required to enter the profession did not translate into an adequate salary, but was more on par with the type of remuneration accorded to the clerical occupations.

Subject Headings:

  • Public libraries—History—Toronto, Ont.
  • Women librarians—History—Toronto, Ont.
  • Library surveys