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.