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WSS Annual Conference 2000 Program

Taking the Temperature of Women's Studies in the Year 2000

At the WSS 2000 Annual Conference Program, participants shared insights, ideas and experiences of women's studies scholarship and librarianship at the turn of the millennium by joining one of four group discussions on the following topics:
  • changes in the disciplines
  • the impact of electronic resources and access
  • changing modes of instruction
  • the institutional location(s) of women's studies.

Groups were facilitated by WSS members. Facilitators' introductory remarks and discussion notes follow below, as available.

Changes in the Disciplines: Ellen Broidy

Impact of Electronic Resources and Access: Sandy River

Changing Modes of Instruction: Dolores Fidishun

Institutional Location of Women's Studies: Sarah M. Pritchard

Changes in the Disciplines Introductory Comments by Ellen Broidy

I have interpreted my role this morning’s as framing questions in order to set a context for our discussion about how the changes in some “traditional” disciplines have affected Women’s Studies scholarship and librarianship. For the sake of argument (and because Marlene’s instructions mentioned something about being provocative), I want to play with that a bit. I propose that, in addition to examining Women's Studies from the vantage point of other disciplines, we also interrogate changes within Women’s Studies itself. In particular, I suggest examining those changes that continue to shake (and reinvigorate) Women’s Studies from within its very own (fluid and elastic) borders.

Let me start by posing (and of course not answering) a very basic question about the “core” nature of Women’s Studies. Is it a discipline? Does it have a set of pedagogical and intellectual practices that set it apart from (or, conversely, make it similar to) other disciplines? What, if anything, differentiates the content of Women’s Studies from, say, women’s history or women’s literature or the sociology of gender. Can we identify with certainty the elements (title, subject matter, faculty member, etc.) that bring a book, electronic resource, or for that matter, a library instruction session to the attention of the Women’s Studies specialist and not some other subject librarian? And what are the shifting parameters that define (or confine) the scope of the Women’s Studies librarian’s purview?

Even if we all agree that Women’s Studies does, indeed, fulfill the basic requirements of discipline, whatever they may be, we are still left with some intriguing questions. For example, how might a wide acceptance of disciplinary status alter the deeply (and dearly) held view that Women’s Studies is/can/should be both transformative (personally as well as academically) and proudly transgressive? Can you foment revolution or even challenge traditional hierarchical structures of knowledge while embedded in (and deeply dependent upon) the "system?" Is it possible for an academic endeavor to be both a discipline and an “interdiscipline?” How well do librarians, library admnistrators, publishers, vendors, website developers, distributors, approval plan profiles, etc. handle interdisciplinarity? Or does interdisciplinarity continue to fall outside an LC-structured bibliographic net, perhaps by conscious design? Bibliographically and economically, do Women’s Studies librarians have a stake in claiming a disciplinary base for Women's Studies? Even as a discipline, can Women’s Studies continue to challenge the notion of a canon or has canonical orthodoxy found a home within Women’s Studies? As librarians, we need to questions the assumptions upon which we ground our selection and organization of materials. Is this acquisition and organization based on some agreed-upon definition of Women’s Studies or is it our responsibility to challenge disciplinary borders, risking the appearance of trespassing in order to expand the universe of information central to the feminist intellectual enterprise.

Since I have the luxury of tossing out questions without the responsibility of providing answers, here is another one that popped into my head as I pondered this morning’s exercise. What about “naming?” What happens to Women’s Studies – and Women’s Studies librarianship – when the program is suddenly recast as gender studies”? How do we then negotiate both the intellectual and bibliographic terrain of a “discipline” whose scope now arguably encompasses all human experience and most other fields of study? Where (and to whom) do we go when and if Women’s Studies takes the linguistic turn and we find ourselves (and our collection’s budgets) struggling to reach a reasonable accommodation with emerging interdisciplines such as cultural studies or visual studies?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we are toiling (or roiling) in the fields of theory. Theory, whether poststructural, postmodern, or postcolonial, has altered the academic/intellectual landscape, perhaps nowhere as profoundly as in Women’s Studies. Theory informs much of the most exciting feminist scholarship; regrettably, much of the most highly theoretical is also the most deeply inaccessible. Two questions immediately come to my mind when pondering Women's Studies romance with theory. First, the increasingly pervasive use of feminist theory by scholars who identify most closely with other disciplines further continues to blur the lines between Women's Studies and other sectors of the academy. What sort of impact does this have on how Women's Studies librarians build collections and/or communicate with colleagues across disciplinary borders? The second question is even more practical and speaks to the issue of the librarian's role as "trail guide." In a research library setting, how do we define our responsibilities for insuring that our collections include "elementary" texts in feminist (and other) theories so that even if the syllabus assumes that everyone is equally comfortable with Judith Butler or Donna Haraway, our collections continue to provide a safe haven for the theory challenged?

One issue that is increasingly hard to avoid for anyone involved in/with Women's Studies concerns diminishing enrollments (and the concomitant loss of prestige) in humanities and the “soft” social sciences. As we take the temperature of Women's Studies in the year 2000 we need to examine the strategies underway to stem (or buck) this tide and to keep Women's Studies vital and viable. As we look at the possibilities for redefining or redirecting Women's Studies scholarship and teaching, we need to identify (and understand) ways in which fundamental changes in this field and other, related fields, translate into our daily activities building, processing, and making accessible Women's Studies materials. Understanding the often-shifting place of Women’s Studies in a dynamic, contentious, and increasingly interdisciplinary landscape is a challenge that faces us on a daily basis. Making enough sense of it to carry on an animated conversation is the challenge we face this morning.

Impact of Electronic Resources and Access Introductory Comments by Sandy River

Surely all aspects of librarianship have been touched by the Internet and the many electronic resources available free or by subscription on the Web and on CD-ROM. To get an accurate read on women’s studies in 2000 we must consider the impact of electronic resources on what we do as women’s studies librarians. I hope that some of you will join me in that discussion.

There’s no mystery what we’re talking about. Everyone seems to have a Web page: libraries, companies, and organizations: big and small, U.S. and international, private and governmental. There are wonderful comprehensive web sites on various topics. There are old stand-by reference sources available on CD-Rom or the Web. Even womens’s studies has four databases available. The number of full-text resources is increasing. What has this meant for women’s studies and ethnic studies librarianship?

It has certainly affected our selecting. Do we buy resources in print or electronic formats? There may be sources that we’re no longer buying because the information is now available on the Web. In other cases, there are materials that we would never have bought before that are now attractive because of new formats. And, of course, we’re having to decide what to put on our own web sites.

The advent of electronic resources has changed the nature of our reference and consultation work. Most of us have noticed that our undergraduate students would rather die than use a print resource. But have the research methods/practices of our faculty and graduate students also changed? The topics that researchers are pursuing may be changing. At Texas Tech we haven’t purchased international materials to any great extent. But now databases bring us international newspapers and statistics, and foreign governments and other organizations have sophisticated web sites providing us with information we may never have had access to before.

I suspect that there are also new frustrations associated with these electronic products. What do we think of them? Do the full-text products provide the material our patrons need? Does Women’s Studies get its share of the dollars set aside for electronic resources so we can provide these products, or is this money as hard to come by as has been money for our books and journals? Have users’ expectations become unreasonable? Isn’t everything on the Internet? Finally, this may be another case of “More Work for Mother,” referring to the book that pointed out that labor saving devices for the home actually raised cleanliness expectations and resulted in more housework. Has the pervasiveness of electronic resources made more work for us? – making web pages, learning ever-changing interfaces, having to explain new tools along with the old.

There are lots of questions that we can discuss, and I hope that some of you will join me in that discussion.

Changing Modes of Instruction Introductory Comments by Dolores Fidishun

This Discussion Group will examine issues in Education and Instruction. Obviously I am not hear to give you answers but to put forth some basic questions to start our discussion. I would like to propose that we start with four essential questions:

1. What are we teaching?

a. Does electronic access to information create a new scheme for teaching? Do we spend more time covering not only how to use electronic resources but how to access them? For example, at Penn State Great Valley now have to teach how to dial in to the network and authenticate into the system in addition to how to use specific resources.

b. What resources are we required to teach and how does the interdisciplinarity of women’s studies and other fields effect our ability to cover the resources we need to cover ? How many resources must we introduce and can we do it all?

c. Do we ever get to the books and primary data and how do they fit into the entire picture when we include electronic resources? How do we structure lessons, particularly if we are teaching in an online classroom, so that both traditional and electronic resources get the time and emphasis that they need?

2. How are we teaching?

a. Do we use “women friendly” and “diversity friendly” methods of teaching? Do we in women’s studies have an obligation to be starlwarts of what my colleague, Ellen Broidy calls “teaching as if people mattered?”

b. How has technology effected how we teach? Must we spend time doing “hands-on” instruction of electronic resources and how does that effect our ability to teach in the library as opposed to a computer classroom?

c. How are we designing instruction? The field of instructional design has evolved just as quickly as electronic access. Are we using collaborative or constructivist theories and methodologies? Have we really found what works, not only with regard to diversity but, taking it a little further, with things like multiple intelligences?

d. Are we cognizant of Gender and Technology issues? Those of you who know my area of research know that this is one of my major concerns. We need to ask ourselves if we are teaching women’s resources to women, are we aware of the research from Sherry Turkle and others about how women (and men) use and understand technology and are we using this knowledge in the design of instruction?

3. How has additional access to resources in the “24 x 7, anytime, anywhere” environment effected our teaching?

a. How are we dealing with students who want library instruction from a hotel in Cleveland while traveling for business or a young mother who wants to know how to use a library resource when she starts to work at midnight after her children are in bed?

b. Are we cognizant of the effects of web-based learning?

c. What is the effect of the Internet with all its resources beyond our libraries and how does this affect the need for critical thinking skills? What does “information literacy” mean in our interdisciplinary environment? How do we develop the kinds of critical thinking skills that Ruth Dickstein discusses in her proposed program for ACRL?

4. Finally, what new issues are out on the horizon? How do we scan our environment and keep abreast of not only new technology, but new teaching methods and other issues that will affect the way we teach tomorrow?

Changing Modes of Instruction Notes from Discussion by Kelly Hovendick

  1. Departmental and program changes were discussed(i.e., Women’s Studies to Gender Studies, WS minors to majors to graduate degrees, etc.) and many concerns were raised as to our role during these changes – what will our liaison responsibilities consist of? How will instruction change? One librarian suggested “selling” your services and establishing your credibility primarily during these changes which could ultimately help to affiliate your services with the department or program long term.

  2. Adapting teaching styles within different departments and disciplines was also discussed. Some of the librarians indicated that they don’t teach any differently; others have started teaching more gender-friendly across the board; and others believe that their enthusiasm for Women’s Studies just naturally came through in their teaching.

  3. Off-campus access and its effect on users was the third hot topic identified. Are we creating teaching webpages? Also, the general consensus was that distance learning is becoming more integrated rather than its own separate entity.

Institutional Location of Women's Studies Introductory Comments by Sarah M. Pritchard

Issues surrounding the institutional location of women’s studies are a direct application of the questions surrounding disciplinarity that were outlined by Ellen Broidy. The place of women’s studies in the academy -- and thus the library -- has been a long-time source of conflict, controversy, and creative energy.

Women’s studies may be a department, a program, a campus center, an informal network; highly academic or highly political, separate from other programs (or from the local public community) or integrated with them, and everything in between. It can be analyzed as being its own mini-series of feminist phase theory: from a separate program focusing just on women’s studies; to a broader department that includes women’s, men’s, and queer studies and all the other “isms;” to a perspective that is integrated across the traditional departments (an old structure overlaid with a new awareness); to a variety of combinations that strive for the kinds of integration that will bring productive change together with a special focus so as not to lose unique ideas and issues. And these different institutional forms do not necessarily develop in a predictable order or with enduring institutional commitment. Each of us has seen how hard it is to establish a structure in the first place, and how easily vulnerable that structure is to later political or financial pressure.

In libraries, we need to ask ourselves, how much does the collection development and reference structure have to parallel the academic structure? We see it first in collection development and management: how is the budget allocated, how are large approval plans profiled and charged, what tools (conspectus? shelflist count? other?) are used for evaluation or for preservation decisions? International women’s studies faces all these and more -- are language-specific bibliographers including that topic in their selections? Are women’s studies and feminist publications from other countries being omitted by vendor or publisher attitudes or because the evolution of the field itself in another country is so different? Issues go beyond the collections to such things such as faculty liaison, space (e.g., separate reference collections or offices), budgeting of large multidisciplinary resources like databases, bibliographic instruction (both its content and who does it), the role of branch libraries, the role of uncataloged informal collections on campus (e.g. in the women’s center), and the level of resources needed (e.g., graduate versus undergraduate, scope of faculty research).

There are advantages and disadvantages to be considered for each structural model. For a separate department or program, the library can often better manage and justify a concentrated focus on collection development and reference support, especially in libraries that align their budgets along academic department lines. However, it may be difficult to find a librarian with the right experience or training and the line may get assigned to someone already juggling all the “other” (and not necessarily related) fields. With a separate focus, a dynamic librarian might leverage that independence to develop a broad awareness of the value and challenges of all forms of interdisciplinarity. Yet, one of the disadvantages of a separate women’s studies department is that it may be too easy for the “mainstream” disciplines to ignore it; that is, to say that “we don’t need to collect/recommend that item because the women’s studies folks will,” and this risks letting the traditional disciplines become even more rooted in old-fashioned structures and analyses. In a combined department that supports women/gender/other studies, the risk is that the important political and theoretical contributions articulated by feminist scholars will get lost, or that false analogies will be drawn as to how the diverse programs should be treated. In a combined merged-plus-separate approach, the actual amount of collection dollars allocated may be too small to effectively support the purchases in the “separate” line but meanwhile the mainstream line is off the hook (or so they think).

The existence of a women’s center is an added dimension that is not like other disciplines except in some ethnic studies. This may give women’s studies a connection into such areas as student services, staff support, employment and heath services, and community outreach. The librarians will need to consider how to be involved -- is there a library there, is it cataloged, are the records online or at least on a web link, who does the purchasing? Might librarians be involved in providing liaison or direct services at the center? In some institutions the women’s studies librarian has even been an adjunct staff member at a center or program. The center may be able to offer information services or resources that cannot be provided through the library, for example, more alternative publications, or women-only sessions. But if the only focus on a campus is the center, there is the risk that the subject itself will be deemed irrelevant or nonacademic and that library materials funds will not be allocated. Academic legitimacy is conferred by a teaching program or department, although sadly it sometimes means a divisiveness with or distancing from community or political issues.

Feminist thinking challenges the boundaries -- of disciplines, political structures, and organizational hierarchies. This is not to say that the structures and disciplines will go away, or that there is any one perfect solution. It is rather that we must carefully parse out the direct and indirect implications of the institutional location of women’s studies, in whatever institution we find ourselves, and help our library, faculty and student colleagues analyze what will be most effective to deliver information resources and services. Pragmatically, we will probably need to take pieces of all the structures, use whatever we can justify politically and financially, and be open to shifting arrangements over time. We can’t take for granted that the discipline will be solid, whether in the arena of academia or that of information.

Institutional Location of Women's Studies Notes from Discussion by Brita Servaes

The participants of this discussion group introduced themselves and described the institutional location of women’s studies in their particular universities or colleges. Several key issues emerged:

  1. Women’s Studies (WS) has until quite recently been dismissed as non-essential in many institutions (example: the suggestion to put together a special WS section in the reference collections at the Library of Congress was dismissed in the late 70s). Also, providing WS browsing collections in undergraduate libraries is an idea that typically gets very little support. This marginalized status is still reflected in the way WS is situated on campuses today. The most recent trend is to consolidate several marginalized programs (e.g. WS, African American Studies, or WS with Gay/Lesbian Studies into Gender Studies) physically and/or organizationally. If this will be helpful or harmful to the programs involved remains to be seen.

  2. WS on many campuses is a program, not a department (degrees are granted by different departments); this leads to conflicts over fund allocations between departments and even within departments and pits feminist faculty against each other in competition for resources, including library acquisitions resources. These problems are intensified by the promotion and tenure problems many WS faculty typically face. Even when a library has a separate “women’s studies” fund, these conflicts persists, esp. since most funds are small and are meant to “fill in the gaps”.

  3. It is hard for WS librarians to keep up with new programs and secure sufficient coverage for all aspects of WS: being interdisciplinary, WS covers such a wide range of fields that a WS librarian has to stretch far into many different disciplines (e.g. both humanities and social sciences). At the same time, WS is typically located in the “Arts and Sciences” departments, and some other fields have not accepted WS and feminist theory at all, e.g. public administration, MBA programs, etc.

  4. Approval plans with vendors such as Yankee and Blackwell do not work well to cover the complexity of WS. It is very hard to put the parameters of such an interdisciplinary field into approval vendors’ categories. This, and some of the factors mentioned above, make it necessary for the WS librarian to work not only with the various academic departments involved, but also to work closely with other subject specialist librarians in order to ensure healthy WS collections. Discussion participants reported both positive and negative experiences in working with their colleagues (again, competition for limited funds is a factor).

  5. A participant from the Chicago Public Library brought the importance of service and professional networking to the discussion. In public libraries (and small college or community college libraries) funds for WS are often limited or have to be carved out of more general funds. Here, guidance from and professional exchange with other WS librarians is helpful for selection of the most important resources. WS librarians across institutional boundaries need to build stronger connections to help each other and need to remember the personal development needs of their users.

  6. On the other side of the spectrum, large research collections of microfilmed documentary resources are now in competition with electronic resources. Libraries tend to favor spending on electronic resources, and it gets harder to justify spending on microfilm sets. Cooperative arrangements, where possible, can help.

Based on this discussion, the participants made three suggestions as to how ACRL/WSS could address some of these issues:

Suggestion 1) Have a dialog with vendor representatives on managing approval plans for WS. This dialog could also include teaching faculty representatives and possibly other ACRL sections, such as the Anthropology and Sociology Section, who deal with similar issues of planning for interdisciplinary collections.

Suggestion 2) Address the outreach needs in WS librarianship: that includes public libraries, women’s centers, faculty, students and staff. Provide a collection development bridge to the user communities for these “non-academic” (personal development) needs. This could be accomplished by creating a core list of notable books in WS for each year for these community-oriented needs.

Suggestion 3) Provide help with developing foreign WS collections by providing lists of resources, approval plans (e.g. for Africa) and other acquisition and professional awareness tools.

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