From the Library: Outing the Father of Librarianship
This week marks the first From the Bitch Library post that examines the history of female librarianship as well as the relationship between feminism and libraries.
It's no secret that most librarians are women (according to 2002 US Statistical Abstract figures, 82% of librarians in the US are women). But not everyone knows the story behind female librarianship in the states. Today we'll take a look at Melvil Dewey, who is accredited with having made library science such a popular career for women.
Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System (as well as co-founder of the American Library Journal and the American Library Association), is often praised for having created a field of jobs for women in the US. In 1883, Dewey was hired as the head librarian at Columbia College (which later turned into Columbia University), and he soon convinced the trustees to let him open a library school. At the time, Columbia College only allowed women into a special women's college, so Dewey's plans to invite women to join the library school were controversial. His first class was comprised of 20 people, 17 of whom were women. While many have focused on Dewey's success in educating and opening up jobs for women, attention is rarely paid to why he felt women would make great librarians. Spoiler alert: he held some pretty sexist beliefs.
Image: Melvil Dewey
In The Feminization of Libraranship, Tawny Sverdlin asks whether Dewey's opening up the library school for women was actually the achievement that it seems:
The opportunity for women to enter library school at Columbia College...proved to be a double-edged sword in terms of women’s opportunity for advancement. Melvil Dewey championed women as librarians and library school educators but placed caps on their achievement in terms of gender straight away. According to Dewey’s blatant double standard, women had to demonstrate truly remarkable ability or be relegated to perpetual underling status.
Notably, many students in the first class at Columbia dropped out because of his strict and eccentric teaching style. Keeping in mind that Dewey was known to grope and try to kiss female colleagues, you have to wonder why so many of his initial students quit. Dewey’s “scandalous behavior” and "his persistent inability to control himself around women" was cited in a biography called Irrepressible reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey.
Furthermore, a major reason Dewey wanted women to enter the field was because he felt women were ideal for the repetitiveness of library work and “didn‘t cause trouble.”
Dewey frequently came into conflict with colleagues and officials. Due to blatant racism, anti-Semitism, and sexual misconduct, he was forced to resigned from several prominent positions. A group of Library school alumnae and women from the American Library Association threatened to bring a vote of censure against Dewey because he had sexually harassed women at ALA conferences. In 1906, they kicked him out of active ALA participation. Those are the kind of librarians that should go down in history, right?
While he did help to open up a new field for women, Melvil Dewey does not deserve credit as any kind of advocate for women’s rights or professional advancement. And his contributions to the profession of librarianship in no way cancel out his sleaziness and sexism.
Countless librarians have made remarkable gains for women while promoting free access to information. I’ll be featuring some of the women who have made contributions to social justice through their work in libraries in upcoming posts, so keep reading!
Next week's From the Bitch Library will feature another one of our zine reviews!
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