In a discussion of librarian stereotypes, it is important to note that male stereotypes existed well before female ones. In early times, libraries were primarily academic, and staff were exclusively male. As the profession changed, so did the image. Prior to 1870, when more women entered the profession, Jody Newmyer asserts that librarians were perceived as “grim, grouchy, eccentric, and male” (44). Arnold Sable reaffirms this image, categorizing male librarians as “bibliophiles, a pale, undernourished man who lived only for is books” (Dickinson 99).
Modern libraries had their origin in colonial America in institutions of higher learning. Libraries had limited hours, short loan periods, and loaned exclusively to professors or people with special permission. Thad Dickinson maintains that these restrictions on libraries aided in the formation of stereotypes for librarians as enforcers and strict disciplinarians, as once a month librarians had to inventory the books, and personally account for the missing books financially at the end of this term (Dickinson 99).
In early library history, the status of librarians was unclear. At some colleges, professors would rotate as librarian and sometimes the presidents would serve in that role. Other scholars say that there was no status associated with the job, and no special qualifications needed (Dickinson 100). The stacks were closed, so only librarians had access to the materials. There was no reference service provided to patrons, and no instruction on information literacy. There was also no collection development, as librarians relied almost solely on gifts, until later when they had to fundraise for new materials.
Eventually there was a shift in colleges towards research as part of higher learning, which benefited libraries. They now needed bigger collections and more access. Coupled with this was the emerging public library movement, which helped pave the way for reference services, traditionally considered as a distraction from the librarian’s duties as keeper of the books (Dickinson 101). This movement likely served to reinforce the stereotype of librarians as frigid and unaccommodating. This is backed by some classic portraits of librarians. John Langdon Sibley, a Harvard librarian from 1856 to 1877, was considered “primarily a collector and a conservator” who had “little interest in casual readers and had no tolerance for the abuse of the materials or infraction of rules.” One anecdote refers to the president of Harvard asking Sibley what he was so excited to be doing, and Sibley replying that he was hunting for two books missing from the collection. Sibley conformed to the stereotype of librarians as unyielding authority figures. Similarly, a professor at Columbia University in 1876 wrote of librarian Beverly Robinson Betts, claiming, “he seemed generally displeased when anyone asked for a book and positively forbidding when asked to buy one” (Dickinson 101). Historical figures like Sibley and Betts provided the basis for building librarian stereotypes.
With the introduction of women into the profession, these same stereotypes took on a new meaning. Dee Garrison argues that rapid feminization of libraries also played a role in the change in attitudes to women in the workforce in general. In 1852, the first female clerk was hired in the Boston Public Library; by 1878, two thirds of library employees were women. By 1910, women comprised 78.5% of library workers. The library offered lots of jobs for women. The pay was low, but the tasks required educated workers, both reasons why men didn’t oppose women in the job. The library was molded to fit the women’s sphere of activities, as the work mirrored skills found in housekeeping and cultural activity, and did not require other skills or strength (Garrison 132). In the long term, this made it difficult to professionalize librarianship and affected the type of service provided by the library. As one of the few places open to educated women for employment, it served to further the low status of women, and shaped the role of the library in society which marginalized it as a source of amusement.
As the twentieth century approached, the number of libraries grew rapidly. The 1876 Report on Public Libraries included 3682 libraries in the United States, with a collective holding of just over 12 million books. With this growth of libraries, male library administrators welcomed more women as library assistants. Public libraries were supported by donations and taxes, therefore libraries needed a low cost workforce so that most of the money could go to the books. At a 1877 conference of British and American librarians in London, Justin Winsor stated women “soften our atmosphere, they lighten our labor, they are equal to our work, and for the money they cost – if we must gauge such labor by such rules – they are infinitely better than equivalent salaries will produce of the other sex” (Garrison 133). He also instructed libraries to look to the female colleges for employees, where “we can command our pick.” The only other job at the time that would hire women at similar rate was teaching. The teaching profession also needed educated women to do the jobs, and while librarians had similar qualifications as the teachers, the library wages were less. Library work allowed women to practice their “presumed special feminine talents” (Garrison 133).
Garrison contends that as new ideas emerged, they clashed with the idea of the women’s sphere. Women began to claim their right to individualism, but there was no radical call for social change to accompany this. Theories began to develop as to why women could now work in certain fields. Teaching was related to mothering and therefore acceptable for women, and female writers, musicians and artists were acceptable because of the Victorian ideal of feminine love of beauty and their sensitivity. Women were moving into the workforce but still maintained that idea of the women’s sphere. The library also worked with this women’s sphere theory because it held books which were representative of culture. Women were now seen as the guardians of culture as it fell within their sphere (Garrison 135). Female librarians only made the idea of women as the guardians of culture more clear. Education and charity were also considered part of the female sphere, and educating and uplifting the morals of the masses was a major mission of the early library.
One proponent of female librarianship was Melvil Dewey. He saw the librarian as holding a higher place in society then the teacher or the clergy. Dewey stated “is it not true that the ideal librarian fills a pulpit where there is service every day during the waking hours, with a large proportion of the community frequently in the congregation? … [The library is] a school in which the classes graduate only at death?” (Garrison 136). Additionally, he encouraged women who were considering teaching to go to the library for a job instead, because it was less strenuous and crowded than teaching, and that this peaceful nature of the library would make up for the lesser pay.
As more women joined the library profession, the literature changed to reflect it. The focus changed to a sort of welcoming, homey atmosphere, which softened the library. Garrison avers that dual purpose to this. It served to draw in more patrons by making them feel more welcome, and by subtly expanding the women’s sphere to include libraries by making library skills feminine skills (Garrison 137). Women were also preferred for cataloging duties, as they needed patience and attention to detail for the monotonous task. The role of the librarian in regards to children was also undisputedly female.
Men in the same jobs were paid more and headed the biggest and most prestigious libraries. In spite of this the literature of the time emphasized the pride that women were so prevalent in libraries and not this inequality. The twelve female representatives at the ALA 1876 meeting only added to the submissive image. They were “the best listeners, and occasionally would modestly take advantage of gallant voices, like Mr. Smith’s, to ask a question or offer a suggestion” (Garrison 139). Essentially, it appeared as if women did not want to bring about major change, as if they were afraid of rocking the boat, or they didn’t want to upset the male/female relationships, even if they did want to advance their positions within the library. Societal ideas were holding women back, as generations of women were taught that success depended on marriage and not work. They needed to think how to conform to feminine ideals. As much as they were widening the women’s sphere, they were also affirming their own positions as the feminine ideal. Librarianship was considered a proper pursuit for women, and encompassed female ideas (Garrison 140).