Women in Librarianship

Toward a Gendered History of the Profession

University of Toronto Library School, Class of 1936.
Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

Librarianship is often described as a “woman’s profession,” but historical analysis of libraries and library personalities is rarely a woman’s history. Take a look at any book or a secondary source on the history of a library, a professional association, or a library school—how prominent are female librarians or library science faculty in these narratives? 

In a field dominated by women, there is a need to establish what Suzanne Hildenbrand defines as a “gendered history.” It is not enough to recount women’s achievements and contributions to the profession. Women’s experiences and perspectives, as well as the origins of the gendered structure of librarianship, should be the main concerns in library history. 

In the 1970s, Kathleen Weibel and other second-wave library feminists idealistically envisioned librarianship as a “feminist profession,” where functions of librarians are determined by individual choices and abilities and which is based on a “feminist value system” that obliterates traditional roles defined by gender and power. For a new generation of library feminists, recounting of a more inclusive, gendered history represents a continuation of the efforts of our predecessors. 

Scholars & Books

Roma Harris, Suzanne Hildenbrand, and Mary Niles Maack are some of the most prominent scholars of history, labour, and gender in our profession. Their books and articles contain theoretical background on the topic. The following sources, arranged alphabetically, are an excellent introduction to the history of women in librarianship.

My Research: Library Professionalism & History of Victoria University Library

As a graduate student of library and information science at the Faculty of Information, I completed a research project on the roles women played in the origins of librarianship in the province of Ontario and in the development and subsequent professionalization of library science education in the University of Toronto Library School, the predecessor of the FI.

I presented part of the project at the  IFLA International Conference History of Librarianship (August 2014) and at Canadian Library Association 2013 National Conference and Trade Show in June of 2013. As a librarian, I have continued to expand my research beyond the local context and study how the notions of library professionalism have evolved over the course of the twentieth century. 

My current project, History of Victoria University Library analyzes the library as a site of institutional memory. Charlotte Linde extends Pierre Nora’s influential exploration of ‘lieux de mémoire’ to argue that buildings and other spatially defined places are 'sites of memory' that contribute to the shaping of a coherent, institutional tradition and identity. Linde’s approach shifts the focus on the library from a repository of books and provider of academic services and study spaces to an institutional workplace with collective experiences and memories. The Victoria librarians established both general and special collections, catalogued and classified books and other materials, curated exhibits, produced scholarly publications, provided leadership during strenuous and transformative times, and thus made distinct intellectual contributions to the institutional prestige of Victoria University.