Living with the legacy

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When I decided to go to library school, I don’t think anyone that I told batted an eye at this decision. It makes sense for my personality. It makes sense for my critical interests. And, the Master’s in English doesn’t exactly dissuade anyone of the idea that I like books.

It might also be because I do look the type.

This might seem silly, but when I look around my classes at school, I notice that we do fit a certain type. There are a lot of cardigans. And glasses. And buns. And there will be the occasional funky scarf or old lady jewellery. Tattoos aren’t totally out of place, but they aren’t all that common. Fan-girl t-shirts are pretty standard.

For myself? Pencil skirts are where it’s at, baby.

Fashion is kind of a frivolous way to define a profession, but this idea gets a little more interesting, and disturbing, when we think about the legacy of who works in libraries.

Namely, ladies like myself. Most of my classmates are women, and this really is a profession that has been dominated by the fairer sex.

During WWII, when the men were away in war, women stepped up to fill all kinds of roles. After the war ended, the women didn’t budge. During the 1950s there was a huge demand for librarians, and the trend of women filling this role just kind of continued.

This isn’t the only reason that there are so many women in librarianship, but it’s a pretty dominant one. If we take a look at this 1947 vocational video on “The Librarian” we can see this trend in action.

Here’s how the film depicts a librarian:

Aw, isn't she sweet?

Aw, isn’t she sweet?

And here’s a reference librarian:

Somewhat younger

Here’s a children’s librarian:

What have you done with my mother?

Some cataloguers:

I see no issue here

A hospital librarian:

I'm a qualified professional, but for some reason this film depicts me as having humourous difficulty with medical terms. Science is SO HARD!

In this film, I can’t pronounce the terminology I need to do my job because I’m a woman and Science is SO HARD!

And a library administrator:

Wait, how did this one get here?

Wait, how did this one get here?

 

With the exception of that last image, which was oddly male and I can think of no reason why that might be, all of these depictions of library staff are just what you’d expect. The only aberration is that there’s nary a bun in sight.

Training to be a librarian, and knowing that I’m living with this legacy, is odd. It makes me feel like a cookie-cutter image of what’s come before. It isn’t exactly the best legacy to be living with, given the lack of women of colour represented in library history, or the number of men filling roles besides those at the top.

Thankfully, the world has changed drastically in many ways since 1947. My colleagues might still mostly be women, but at least they aren’t all white women as this film depicts. They aren’t all as demure, either. By supporting my male coworkers, aiming to get a job closer to the top than to the bottom, and challenging stereotypes about what it means to be a librarian, I hope that I’m not limited in my work by representations like this of librarians. Instead, I’d love to read them as campy – isn’t it funny how outdated they are? The problem is, some of the issues that they bring up do hit a little close to home – at least when I look around the classroom.

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