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Feminist Research in Librarianship



Feminist Thinking and Librarianship in the 1990s: Issues and Challenges

by Sarah M. Pritchard
University Librarian
Davidson Library
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
805-893-3256

A slightly revised version of this essay was published as "Backlash, Backwater, or Back to the Drawing Board? Feminist Thinking and Librarianship in the Nineties." Wilson Library Bulletin 68:10 (June 1994): 42-46. The article was based originally on a presentation at the annual conference of the Michigan Library Association, Lansing, Michigan, October 21, 1993. Sarah Pritchard and HW Wilson Company have granted permission for this essay to be available via the FTF Web site.
 
 

Last year a group of library directors, mostly men, took a post-conference tour of a Civil War battlefield. Our guide, a local veteran and retiree, asked at one point whether we wished to stop and ascend a lookout tower. Nobody expressed interest, knowing there were other sites to see and time was short. One of the directors turned to make sure I wasn't being passed over, but I too demurred. The guide chuckled, "I guess we don't have any women's lib here!" An appalled hush descended, and everyone looked at me. I didn't want to launch a diatribe, but I couldn't let it pass. I glibly retorted, "Well, I don't worry, because my library is bigger than all these guys'." It broke the tension and got a great laugh -- but was I just accepting a male definition of power? Maybe I too was seduced by the military metaphors that permeate our organizational cultures and marginalize managers who ignore or opt out of them.

Have we really progressed to a post-feminist era? Who is "we" and what is "progress?" Is there a feminist analysis of librarianship, and how can the profession be sexist when it is female-dominated? Are these merely "social issues" that distract from proper library service? I'd like to sketch some frameworks for thinking about these questions; I can't give you all the answers, but I hope we can enlarge our understanding and our willingness to work together for change.

Feminist Critique

The feminist perspective is not a unified set of beliefs, which is in itself a signal aspect of feminist theory: the breaking down of false universalisms, and the surfacing of diversity. I refer to the "feminist perspective" to denote a whole array of insights achieved over the past twenty-five years or so. These insights have emerged in academic research, public policy and community activism. Feminist critique starts with "women" or "women's issues," but goes beyond to the impact of gender relations and gendered conditions of human development in all spheres of thought and action. This distinction is fundamental, and easier to understand when one reflects on the many studies of women, even of sex differences, that are not especially feminist. The explanatory power of feminist critique lies in its ability to link coherently such an array of issues, disciplinary methods and social contexts.

Feminist consciousness is informed by basic ethical and philosophical tenets also found in librarianship, for example, a concern for clarity in language; for access to services and information regardless of social or economic category, or topic of inquiry; and an awareness of the importance of context in understanding questions and organizations. Feminist thinking advances a more nuanced discussion about the nature of power in social and political institutions, and about the values and communication patterns implicit in abstract and concrete hierarchies and structures. Feminist critique has revolutionized our analysis of the workplace, and of the way knowledge is constructed.

The combination of these values and these analyses is a body of concepts and strategies that might be called "the feminist agenda." But that is misleading; it is not a linear, directed agenda or a single platform. It is a multipronged approach to understanding our work that cuts across all types of libraries, that can be applied to issues of employment, management, library services, library materials, and the methods of the profession. It is a perspective, a lens that permanently enlarges our way of looking, that has relevance to us as working professionals and as providers of information.

The Workplace

Pay equity. Sexual harrassment. Child care. Flexible scheduling. Lateral career ladders. Blind refereeing for professional journals. Representative search committees and calls to advertise the full range of salaries for a position. Management development programs for under-represented groups. Health aspects of computer use. Each of these is a feminist issue of the past two decades, yet each benefits women and men and creates a more equitable and productive profession for all. Real change has been achieved, through new policies, opportunities and participants. There is not enough, and it is not consistent, but there is acceptance of the validity of the issues and of the viability of the solutions.

Feminist perspectives in the workplace started simply with access -- getting jobs, getting equal pay. Then we gained insight into occupational segregation and pay equity, and horizontal and vertical stratification within professions. In librarianship, we have every conceivable flavor of this; not only is the field female-dominated overall, but within it we still have very noticeable stratification, for example between academic and school librarians, or between systems librarians and catalogers.

We also have issues surrounding professional power and status, shifts between professional and paraprofessional, and the automation of libraries -- which can either elevate or routinize our work. The integration of technology in the workplace reveals gender-based assumptions about the design, use and impact of automation. What are the feminist analyses of supposedly neutral or scholarly concepts of the nature of professions and of professional knowledge? Why are the so-called semi-professions (teaching, nursing, librarianship and social work) the female-dominated ones, and what does this mean for the status of these fields? Feminist critiques of sociology are highly relevant, and Roma Harris' recent Librarianship: The Erosion of a Women's Profession covers this with great clarity.

Analyzing power, communication, bureaucracy, participation and decision- making has shown that certain styles and structures are favored, and those more associated with men tend to be more valued. I am not saying a "male style;" traits are distinct from people. Some people have more of some traits, and there begins a lot of discrimination. To get the "right" style, we advise mentoring and internships and training for women -- but what about a different style? It's a question we are still exploring, and as economic and technological factors bring radical change to the workplace, management must change as well. In truth, there is nothing terribly strange about being a "feminist manager;" you might not see the difference walking into the library! Definitions of good library performance and how to measure it probably reflect some very hide-bound theories of management and research, again open to feminist criticism from the social sciences and grass- roots activism. Is bigger better? What is "quality" and who defines it? How do we serve our community -- are we paternalistically telling them what we think they need?

Knowledge, Methods, and Sources

There is more than the status of librarians and library workers; there is the knowledge and information constituting our work. One might wonder why feminist thought has any greater impact on information and libraries than any other subject. In fact, there is a fundamental connection between the two. Librarianship is concerned with the nature of information and recorded expression, the ways people seek and use it, and the processes for selecting, organizing, preserving and retrieving it. Feminist thought calls into question the values and definitions underlying our very concepts of knowledge, thus questioning the institutions and services we build around those concepts.

Feminist critique of language, categorizations of knowledge, and the scope and construction of intellectual endeavors, is directly relevant to the creation of information, its dissemination, acquisition, and classification. Our thinking about the design and uses of technology, about the publishing and media industries, about the kinds of works that get produced and saved, must take into account an immense body of research on the potential bias inherent in these areas. More than bias against individual women or topics related to women, these systems and assumptions reflect a particular historical context and particular, not necessarily universal, ideas about what is high quality, or scientific, or worth studying. Libraries serve as gatekeepers of culture and learning. In selecting some items and ignoring others, in codifying and preserving knowledge, in actively assisting users or passively standing by, libraries control access to, and impose a relational value system on, all forms of information and communication. This, what I might call almost "epistemological imperialism," has consequences for needs and topics that do not fit into these structures and values.

The impact of women's studies is this redefinition of the universe of knowledge; it challenges the boundaries between disciplines, between "scholarly" and more personal forms of knowledge, between the academy and the community. Those boundaries have traditionally defined library classifications, our review media, our budget lines, our approaches to instruction, our databases, our services. Feminist librarians have studied subject headings, classification and indexing, collection development, database coverage, bibliographic instruction and public services. It is not only a question of how would a "women's topic" be handled, but also whether the whole approach is likely to exclude , devalue, misconstrue, and fragment certain kinds of knowledge and of users.

The growth of feminist research into the status, history, and content of the profession can be shown to progress in a mode similar to that in other disciplines undergoing the same re-visioning. "Phase theory," first articulated to demonstrate the methodological and conceptual changes occurring in women's history, helps us understand the coexistence of strategies such as separatism, mainstreaming, individualist, liberal and radical approaches to feminist thought and action. There is a gradual shift from the "add women and stir" model, to a revalorization of a special subculture, to an integrative transformation of the scope and theories of the discipline.

Public Roles and Policies

These strategies and issues are not limited to our libraries or our immediate institutions. They emerge from, and feed back into, policies and awareness at a national level. We have a public role, are affected by a variety of national programs, and utilize broader arenas to sustain the goals of the profession across workplaces. In this sphere feminist critique and activism is again directed in two dimensions, toward employment and workplace legislation, and toward information content and access.

In the first group I would include employment equity and discrimination law (including the ERA); cultural diversity as it affects staff, users and materials; health and disability and child-care provisions. In the second area, it must indeed be a prime interest of librarians to examine the impact of policies that restrict or misuse information. Not only women's groups but others concerned with democratic participation are addressing privacy of and access to information, the role of the public sector in the use and production of information, budget priorities for community and social services, and economic equity as in the debate over fees for service and access to technology. Censorship and the regulation of print and electronic media are traditional domains for professional library advocacy, but these have taken on complicated new implications amidst the divisive feminist positions on pornography.

These matters are argued in our associations and our press; they may blur the distinction between workplace and content issues, but they are not irrelevant. It is the interest in maintaining access to information for all, regardless of economic status, that is the foundation of the feminist initiatives within ALA to oppose some anti-abortion legislation and to support the Nestle boycott. It is the interest in supporting equity for members of a profession that is more than 80% women that led to our support of the ERA. To claim that "social issues" are detracting from the profession is a red herring that avoids the complex underlying circumstances that affect all of us and our services.

What is Still Out There?

Although this wave of research and activism in librarianship goes back to the mid-1970s, there continues to be a proliferation of writing. The 1992 edition of On Account of Sex, the bibliography series sponsored by the ALA Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship, lists 150 items for the 1992-1993 period, which doesn't include articles on women's studies librarianship, or sexism in cataloging, acquisitions and the "content" of the profession. In Library Literature for 1993 I quickly estimated about 60 articles, again, not including many topics or sources that one would include in a full survey of the impact of feminist thought. New monographs and articles in influential professional journals treat aspects of these ideas [see sidebar], and even those don't answer all our questions. What are some of the key issues needing more research?

** Salaries, pay equity and occupational segregation: Inequities are still evident within the profession and when the profession is compared to others, and these have clearly been linked to sex discrimination. There is resistance in governments, corporations and academia, however, to a comparable worth assessment of the value of jobs to an employer. The use of "prevailing wage" arguments and classification formulas often perpetuates past biases embedded in the marketplace. Inside the profession, which the 1990 census shows to be 81% women, there is some improvement in job and salary equity but it is far from even. In 1970 there were no women directors of ARL libraries; the proportion is now 38% both in ARL and in the top private liberal arts colleges in the Oberlin Group. Although starting salaries and high-level directors' salaries seem to be roughly equal, this masks a lot of sex-based clustering. Of ARL rare book librarians in 1992, 60% were men earning an average of 20% more than women in the same specialty. Heads of Circulation were 60% women and overall this specialty is paid 20% less than rare book librarianship. Occupational segregation and salary discrimination persist in women-dominated YA and children's services, and cataloging; sex inequity in paraprofessional positions is marked, raising broader issues of what is "professional" work. We also need more research on the impact of gender in library settings other than academic and large public and special libraries.

** Faculty status, professional education and recruitment: There is an ongoing debate about the relationship of professional status to autonomy, salaries, technology, publishing and other factors that reflect gender differentials. Is the search for faculty status a sexist denial of the female nature of the field, as Roma Harris states? Have women in academic libraries adopted a patriarchal and elite model? Concurrently we are seeing an exciting interest in feminist critique as applied to research, pedagogy and curriculum in library science, for example as described by Jane Anne Hannigan in recent papers for ALISE and WLB. This is an area that we are only beginning to explore, with serious ramifications for teaching and practice. Education and recruitment and status characterize the entire field, and if there are gender-based issues at each of these stages, then all people entering the profession are affected.

** Access to information: Women's studies, and the general feminist critique of information, present real challenges to cataloging, indexing, and collection development. We've analyzed sexism (and other isms) in subject headings, acquisitions and database coverage, but articles still report skeptical findings. With the proliferation of minimal cataloging, multiple thesauri, interconnectivity and multiplicity of systems, is access to nontraditional materials and emerging terminology better or worse? Interdisciplinarity, in women's studies or other innovative areas, requires changes in traditional collection development, cataloging, automation and preservation, to meet the needs of scholars and the patterns of public information seeking.

** Technology: Electronic access and information are transforming every segment of our profession. Intense research is being carried out as to women's and girls' approaches to information technology, and on the technological legacy of a positivist and male-originated philosophy of science. We must look at feminist theories of science, communication and education as we implement information systems. We must focus anew on the workplace issues that automation brings to jobs, for example the functional stratification, differential career paths and the potential for "deskilling" as we move to separate "information specialists" from "inputtists."

** Sociology of the workplace: Women's and civil rights movements are threatened by the so-called "political correctness" backlash, little more than a straw-man attempt to misrepresent truly thoughtful democratic initiatives and to pretend that what existed before was perfectly objective and high-minded. As employers, information gatherers and service providers, we are faced with a long agenda to address diversity, homophobia, harassment, censorship, disability rights, and various kinds of due process for our patrons, our materials and our workforce. We need not only more research but more practical assistance in understanding the interactions among these issues. A look at the daily mail of the Freedom to Read Foundation or the Leroy Merritt Humanitarian Fund will dismay anyone who thinks we have won these battles.

False Myths

Those of us who speak to these issues hear frequently that we are biased, passe, irrelevant or plain wrong. How do we answer some of the challenges?

"Public libraries are not 'friendly' to men," as a recent article claimed. In my opinion, libraries have been doing exactly what they were supposed to -- meeting the needs of their primary patrons. More likely to be working in the home and to have lower incomes, women predominate as public library patrons. It only replicates stereotypes to say that "men want auto repair" and "women want knitting;" a better question would be, are information needs being met within the community? The answer probably includes -- for men with greater resources -- many alternatives other than the library. Women may not have those alternatives.

"Women are getting ahead at the expense of men." A corollary to this myth might be, if a few individual women succeed, that's enough. Library statistics are depressingly reassuring on the point that men are still heavily over-represented among directors, automation specialists and other high-paying parts of the profession. We cannot rely just on individualistic solutions, where there is then little institutional change; "mentoring," for example, rarely addresses basic workplace values. We must continue to work through professional associations and similar groups to extend the hard-won gains of the past fifteen years.

"There is a small group of hard core women and nobody else cares." Meaningful committees will sustain themselves with new generations of members as the original participants branch out. Feminist librarians from the early 1970's are now leaders, presidents, directors, or even contented reference librarians, and we see a steady stream of new names and initiatives at regional and national levels. While we continue to write about specific problems, we also have developed broader alliances. If anything, the "movement" is stronger today for this diversity and institutionalization. You don't need a radical clique to promote feminist awareness, and lots of librarians are doing it.

"Feminist thought is female-superior, essentialist, separatist or wishy- washy." Such arbitrary polarizations are part of the problem. Feminist theorists take both sides of the "sameness" versus "difference" debate about the fundamental natures of men and women. There are proponents of mainstreaming and of separatism. We need both perspectives, we need to focus and integrate at the same time. Feminist thought helps look more rigorously to identify key problems, and to question their origins and solutions. The answers may be many, and their very abundance will ensure that we can adapt them to our particular needs.

"Librarianship already has an image problem, and this perpetuates it." There is incredible sexism implicit in this statement, yet it is expressed by men and women who should see through it more quickly. Librarianship has an "image problem" because women have an image problem. The answer is not to bring more men or more computers into the field. The answer is to improve the status of women in society and the image problem will go away.

"Feminism stifles debate." Ideas don't stifle debate, people do. Some people, on all sides of the issues, are indeed intolerant of each other's beliefs and arguments. Feminism can actually open up our debate to richer and more varied views, to a creative and constructive analysis of things we have taken for granted or have considered out of our sphere.

"It's only a 'social issue,' and not relevant to librarians." The issue is production of and access to information, the issue is our own employment equity. These shape our ability to provide services and our patrons' ability to get resources. Such fundamental critiques are hardly ancillary. Feminism is not just a political movement about "rights," and these are not one-sided ideological positions; it is more likely the former body of theory and practice that embedded unexamined ideologies.

What do the margins of a world tell us about the center? By challenging universalisms, we learn to value differences but also to seek real commonalities from balanced perspectives. By seeing the interconnections among issues, subjects, and strategies in both theoretical and concrete terms, we develop a richer synthesis and a stronger foundation for change. Libraries are an applied laboratory for the sociology of knowledge. We are also a group of people and of workplaces that exist within a set of specific historical, social and political institutions. If we believe this then we must look at the critique of those institutions and of that knowledge. We must acknowledge our history, and we must take a pro-active stance toward our future.

Selected Bibliography to accompany "Feminist Thinking and Librarianship in the 1990s: Issues and Challenges"

 


Last updated: 3/27/99.

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