Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 197-200
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Gendering Library History
Gendering Library History. Edited by Evelyn Kerslake and Nickianne Moody. Liverpool: Media Critical and Creative Arts, Liverpool John Moores University and the Association for Research in Popular Fictions, 2000. 241 pp. £32.17, $46.88. ISBN 0-9527-9780-5.
In spite of its off-putting title, this important collection, representing papers given by English and American scholars in England in May 1999 at a conference by the same name, at long last answers some questions about the status of women in librarianship in the otherwise most familiar of Western European countries. As for the title, besides this reviewer's antipathy for making verbs out of nouns, it promises a bit more than it delivers. If "sex" describes a binary (male/female) or at most, if one adds hermaphrodites, and the two trans-gendered possibilities, a five-sided biological phenomenon, then "gender" implies social roles [End Page 197] and constructions based upon sex. While not all or even a majority of the essays go beyond the description of inequalities in the profession based upon sex to discuss gender roles, they do include aspects of sex not normally covered in a collection of this kind, namely, sexual minorities and men's studies. The interdisciplinary aspects of discussions that followed the papers, referred to in the acknowledgments section, are not reflected in the content of the majority of papers. On considering one wearisome Foucauldian exercise in postmodern terminology (31-39), this may be a blessing; expanding our knowledge of women in library history abroad alone would justify the collection.
While several of the authors make references to historian Dee Garrison's benchmark study of American women librarians (Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian in America, 1876-1920 [New York: Free Press, 1979]), none refers to the work of American sociologist Christine Williams on the effects of sex on gender roles among men and women in feminized professions (for example, Gender Differences at Work: Women and Men in Nontraditional Occupations [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989]), which would certainly support a more germane discussion of gender in librarianship. Throughout the volume, writers pay tribute either explicitly or in references to pioneer feminist library historian, Suzanne Hildenbrand, and one of the writers contributed to Hildenbrand's acclaimed collection, Reclaiming the Library Past: Writing the Women In (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1995). Hildenbrand, along with American Mary Niles Maack and Britons Alistair Black, Margaret Kinnell, and Paul Sturges, served as plenary speakers, yet Hildenbrand's contribution is inexplicably and singularly absent from this volume.
The editors have divided the fourteen papers into four sections that provide "gendered insight" into "library practitioners and practices covering the years 1660 to the 1980s" (2). Thematically arranged, more or less, these are(1) general theoretical considerations of the writing of library history; (2) the women's history perspective; (3) the lesbian and feminist history perspective; and (4) the men's studies perspective, including male homosexuality.
Paul Sturges's apologia pro vita sua eloquently reviews his prolific writings on nineteenth-century English public library history with the ostensible aim of enumerating his "missed opportunities" in researching the place of women in these libraries. He makes the important point, however, that changes wrought by industrialization, far more than "gendered" concerns, dominated the evidence with which he had to work. Certainly, given the wholesale destruction of library records in some American libraries, detailed analysis of nineteenth-century library use such as Christine Pawley's recently published study Reading on the Middle Border: The Culture of Print in Late Nineteenth-Century Osage, Iowa (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) are practically nonexistent.
Clare Beck expands her discussion of the career of Adelaide Hasse, "the difficult woman" of library history whose career she explored in the Hildenbrand collection, to question the terms by which powerful and professionally aggressive women are described compared with their male contemporaries. Her catalog of egregious (if unconscious) linguistic discrimination in the writing of library history implicates women as well as men. It is a classic essay that deserves to be read...