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Women's Studies Section: 25 Years of History, Connections, Resources and Professional Development

At the WSS Social in Anaheim 2008, Dolores Fidishun, Head Librarian Penn State Great Valley, presented a history of the Women's Studies Section.

Dolores also wrote the following article for the fall 2008 WSS Newsletter:

The following article is based on email interviews with a number of the foremothers and other active members of the ACRL Women’s Studies Section, a review of past section newsletters, and emails and conversations with members of our sister organizations - the Feminist Task Force and the Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship. I have tried to cover most of the important events and activities that have occurred over the years, but there were so many great things that have been done by the section and individuals in the section that I am sure I will miss some, although not intentionally. There have been several histories of the section contained in our newsletter, written at the point of various milestones in our development and I would encourage anyone who is interested to not only consult those histories but to take time to peruse some of the other newsletter issues to gain a true appreciation of how active the section has been over the years.

Twenty-five years ago women from academic libraries established a “home” within ACRL for those of us with an interest in Women’s Studies and women’s issues. In my conversations with past and current members it is appropriate to call Women’s Studies Section our “home” because so many of us consider the section to be a place where we find like souls, where we learn and grow.

The women who formed our section were activists who were deeply involved in feminist and equality issues throughout the profession and found expression of their beliefs in various divisions and sections of ALA. Sara Pritchard described the scene in 1983, explaining that “Women's studies librarianship, and more broadly feminist issues in librarianship, was just starting to "diversify" into several different groups.  Having all started from the Task Force on Women (now the FTF), we had committees or discussion groups forming in RUSA (RASD), ALCTS, LAMA, Council (that is, COSWL).”  According to Sara, “in some ways the ACRL Women’s Studies Discussion Group was among the last of these spin-offs, partly because academia itself was just starting to focus on the field, and maybe partly because there wasn't as much [Women’s Studies] librarianship until we had gotten beyond the centrality of the broader feminist/equity issues.”

Joan Ariel spoke about how “a small group of feminist librarians interested in Women’s Studies talked about creating a place for this dynamic, still new discipline in our libraries and professional organizations.” At the Midwinter meeting in San Antonio these women, led by Joan Ariel, Ellen Broidy and what Ellen calls the “Women of the Winter of 83,” a petition was circulated to establish an ACRL Women’s Studies Discussion Group. Not everyone was convinced it was a good idea. Sue Searing originally felt it was unnecessary and would create more meeting conflicts. Some were disturbed at the “elitist” nature of ACRL while others worried that the cross-fertilization of academic and public librarians in the RASD group would be lost. 

Joan and others who supported the formation of the group thought it would provide a forum across professional specialties to discuss women’s studies within the context of academic and research libraries. In addition, feminist academic librarians needed involvement in ACRL to get funding for conferences, and some felt that collection building issues relevant to academic libraries were not being addressed in other venues.  Finally a new discussion group would tap women who had not previously been involved, and women’s voices certainly needed to be heard in the male dominated ACRL.

As Sue Searing said, “Joan was right!” More and more women showed up for meetings and lively discussions ensued. The Discussion Group took on new projects such as Building Women’s Studies Collections: A Checklist for Libraries, Research and Resource Centers, and Individual Collection and gained a positive reputation among academic librarians. By 1985 the Discussion Group had grown to nearly 200 members. It soon became apparent that becoming a section would provide improved visibility and access to better resources. As Lori Goetsch explained, there was a lot of philosophical discussion going on-“why did we want section status? What would we gain?”

In 1986 the Women’s Studies Discussion Group petitioned ACRL to become a section to, according to Joan Ariel, “represent librarians and others who specialize or are otherwise professionally involved in the cross-disciplinary field of Women’s Studies.” In the 1987 membership year, using the old Girl Scout term, we “Flew Up” as Susan Searing described it and became a full section! The original section objectives included:

  • To discuss, promote and support women’s studies collections and services in academic and research libraries.
  • To foster the development of bibliographic instruction, faculty liaison and database searching in the cross disciplinary field.
  • To encourage cooperative collection development and access to women’s studies materials.
  • To foster cooperation among women’s studies librarians, scholars, students and publishers.
  • To work with other ALA groups to promote library and information service to women.

All of the Section Chairs around that time talk about the paperwork and the ACRL bureaucracy. However, as Ellen Broidy said at the time “We are learning the organizational ropes while at the same time maintaining the feminist vision and energy that brought us together.” Sue Searing and Lori Goetsch, who were both willing to chair, became the first co-chairs of the new section and handled the transition from the Discussion Group to the Section. Ellen Broidy, as the first chair of the new official section, attended the meeting of all the section chairs. When she was introduced as the Chair of the new Women’s Studies Section, the entire room broke out into applause.

The first years of the section held a number of milestones. In December of 1986 the first WSS Newsletter was published, edited by Deb Biggs and Deb Schneider. The first WSS Business meeting was held on Jan. 18, 1987. The WSS Discussion at Midwinter, Jan. 20, 1987 was “Antifeminism and its Effect on Women’s Studies” and included two articles to read in advance. The first official WSS program was held on June 27, 1987 from 9:30 am-12:00 noon. The title was Women of Color: Resources and Access, Information For, By and About Women of Color in the United States and was truly a success with 140 attendees. Great programs continue to this day, including this year’s program held on June 30, 2008: Feminist Publishing: The Evolution of a Revolution.

WSS continued to grow. In 1989-90 when Sarah Pritchard was Chair we were, in her words, “coming of age as a section.” Our first five-year section review, led by Sarah Watstein, received high marks. We had our first official logo and stationery designed and we began testing the Conspectus in Women’s Studies written by Sarah Pritchard.

WSS responded to the times and stood up for women through their activism. They voted not to have a program at ACRL in Utah.  During her term as Chair in 1990-91 Patricia Kreitz had to go before the ACRL board to express our concerns and the refusal of the section to take part officially in the conference.

The section also produced a number of resources to assist librarians with their duties in women’s studies libraries. WSSLINKS was instituted in 1996 and began with about ten disciplines.  It was originally constructed by the Collection Development Committee and was maintained for many years by Marlene Manoff.

WSS Committees have changed over the years to meet the demands of our members for professional development, specialized resources and to satisfy their interest in current trends. In 1999 the Technical Services Committee became Electronic Resources and Access. In 2000 the Ad Hoc Research Committee first met after Kris Gerhard and Dolores Fidishun discussed how many of our members were interested in research. It became a regular committee in 2001. In 2001 the Social and Education Committee became the Instruction Committee and in 2004 the Communications Committee became the Membership Committee.

Through the years we have partnered with other women’s groups in ALA. Theresa Tobin has been instrumental as a connection between the groups. For a number of years we have rotated the leadership of the Intro to Women’s issues at ALA program between WSS, the Feminist Task Force and COSWL. We have held a number of joint socials with the Feminist Task Force. Our most recent project is a joint FTF/COSWL/wgss research study of the gender of ALA presenters led by Dolores Fidishun.

One of most dynamic resources, the Core Lists web site, was implemented in 2000. The Core Lists had originally been created in 1991 when Sue Searing was contacted by a group of Russian feminists about core titles in American Feminism. Carrie Kruse explained that Sue brought the request to the WSS Collection Development Committee. In the beginning, Joan Ariel distributed paper copies of the lists and they were eventually moved to the University of Wisconsin gopher service. In 2004 they were converted to a database. 

During Jessica Grim’s term as chair, she carried out a suggestion made by outgoing Chair Bonnie Jean Cox that we should have an award for achievement in Women’s Studies. Jessica worked with a special committee to establish the awards, including soliciting sponsorship from Greenwood and Routledge. The first WSS Awards were given at Annual in 2000. Susan Searing received the award for Career Achievement in Women’s Studies Librarianship sponsored by Greenwood Publishing, and Lynn Westbrook accepted the Award for Significant Achievement in Women’s Studies Librarianship sponsored by Routledge Press.

While there has been much excitement and activity in the section, there has also been some drama. In 2003 the outbreak of SARS in Toronto made it necessary to cancel the WSS program and make committee meeting attendance optional as librarians either chose or were told not to attend the conference. Vice-Chair Sandy River, who chaired the meetings in Toronto when Chair Dolores Fidishun could not attend due to a health issue, described the situation in our newsletter: “This past summer WSS joined countless ALA groups in developing Plan B when the SARS threat disrupted our Toronto plans. Those of us who attended certainly missed you who were prevented from attending, but the work of the Section continued. Prior to the conference, the Executive Committee determined by e-mail poll that we would allow committee chairs to determine whether their committees would meet in Toronto. Many committees met, and those that did not each developed their own Plan B for accomplishing their work. Both the Executive Committee and General Membership meetings were held, and a number of us relaxed a little during the social hour. Unfortunately, the large number of panelists and moderators who could not attend the conference forced cancellation of the Monday program.”
Despite the interruption to our conference activities by the SARS outbreak, 2003 was still a busy year. The section offered a Leadership Orientation to assist new officers and Committee Chairs in their new jobs and the Database Instruction Guides, the first project of the Instruction Committee, were mounted on the web after being approved by the Publications Committee.

WSS Committees continue to be active and to develop new projects. In 2006 the Research Committee, under the guidance of Jennifer Gilley, completed the Research Agenda for Women’s Studies librarianship. This agenda was used by Hope Olson in her Feminism and Librarianship course and gave library students a glimpse into current issues in Women’s Studies Librarianship. Other section projects have allowed us to continuing to contribute to the profession as section committees have created Electronic Resources Information and Assessment, a Women's Studies in Digital Archives Database, the Bibliography of Scholarship on Women's Studies Librarianship and Collection Development Resources, among other products. Most recently we have entered the world of Web 2.0 with our presence on both Facebook and My Space.

As I write this article 2008 continues to be a banner year. An action plan was approved to send section members to NWSA 2009 to present our information literacy standards, a joint WSS Social/FTF Women’s Night Out at Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia attracted over 70 people, and Annual 2008 in Anaheim, CA saw the first set of research poster sessions.

Through twenty-five years of history we have stayed true to the original spirit and culture of the Women’s Studies Discussion Group as explained by Joan Ariel a number of years ago:

  • Emphasizing a collegial/feminist atmosphere
  • Encouraging wide participation among members, new and long standing
  • Providing multiple opportunities for information sharing and discussion
  • Mentoring librarians new to the profession or to women’s studies as well as developing leadership among our members.

However, what we are truly about can only be described in the words used by those who emailed and spoke to me regarding the history of the section and what the section has meant to them over the years. These words included “sisterhood,” “support,” “mentoring,”  “learning,” and “advocating,” but most importantly, connections between women who have like beliefs. We nourish peoples’ souls. As Sue Searing said “WSS has been my emotional and spiritual home in ALA. I have made and sustained wonderful friendships.” This statement was made in a number of ways by many of the individuals who took time to share what the section means to them and is definitely the reason the section continues to be so vibrant and successful after twenty-five years.

Dolores Fidishun, Ed.D.
Head Librarian Penn State Great Valley
September 2008


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