by Faye D. Fischer
In celebration of Women’s History Month we wanted to take a look at some of the women who shaped the library profession. It may seem that librarianship has always been a female dominated profession, but access to the profession had to be earned. According to a census taken by the Oxford University Press “Today, 83 percent of [US] librarians are women, but in the 1880s men had the edge, making up 52 percent of the 636 librarians enumerated. In 1930, male librarians were truly rare, making up just 8 percent of the librarian population.” There are many possible reasons for this shift including World War I and the suffrage movement.
Part of the journey of professional female librarians is overcoming deeply rooted stereotypes. A librarian is, “Bespectacled, hair pulled back behind her ears…unfailingly middle aged, unmarried, and most uncommunicative…an ultimately pitiable figure with no ‘outside interests.’ There at the desk she will stay, stamping out her books, until her retirement,” states Arnold Saber in an article describing the changing role of women in the library in the 1960s. The secret that women library scholars knew, was that in actuality being a librarian requires someone civically minded and engaged. Says Saber, “Their libraries are aware, involved, full of excitement, as pertinent as the headlines.”
Librarianship has evolved significantly over the last century and arguably it was the inclusion of women that drove the profession to evolve from merely keepers of a repository, to the pillars of community involvement and leadership librarians are today.
Belle da Costa Greene
Belle da Costa Greene is one of the most famous American librarians. Greene grew up in an African American community in Washington DC where her father, the first Black graduate of Harvard, worked as an educator, diplomat, and activist. Her profile on the Morgan Library & Museum states, “From the time Belle was a teenager, they described themselves as Americans of Portuguese descent and passed as White in a segregated and deeply racist society.”
As a young woman working at the Princeton Library she was hired by J.P. Morgan to manage his personal library collection. While working in this capacity, she collected many important rare books and manuscripts, organized exhibitions, and advanced bibliographic scholarship.
Perhaps the most significant part of Greene’s work was her influence in directing the establishment of the Pierpont Morgan Library that made the Morgan’s private collection accessible to the public. Appointed by J.P. Morgan Jr., she was the perfect fit for the job and served for over 20 years. She was a mentor and a scholar who advanced the librarian/museum profession by actively promoting the work of other women.
The Morgan Library & Museum has gathered an extensive reading list if you want to learn more about Greene’s remarkable career.
Anne Carroll Moore
Anne Carroll Moore can be a divisive figure in the library world. Despite her strict commitment to quality children’s literature—that some defined as gate-keeping—her contributions changed the way children access library spaces. In 1894 Moore wrote a seminal paper that proposed the creation of areas in libraries designed specifically for children with staff trained exclusively to help them. At the time it was rare for children younger than 14-15 to even be allowed in the door. She worked as the head of children’s library services at the New York Public Library from 1906-1941. During that time she organized hundreds of programs, created lists of quality children’s books, developed training for children’s librarians, and increased circulation so much in the NYPL system that one-third of all books borrowed were children’s books.
Louise Lareau, The current director of the New York Public Library SNFL Center for Children describes the matriarch of her profession as follows: “Although Moore did not believe that books should mix reality with fantasy…her tradition of creating best books lists and finding the right book for the right child lives on.” Lareau defines the creation of children’s spaces and displays in the public library Moore’s legacy that “remains and is still of the utmost importance today.”
Mary Lemist Titcomb
When Mary Lemist Titcomb decided to join the library profession, no schools in the United States offered official programs of study. So she apprenticed in the Massachusetts Library and later went on to found the second successful county library system in the country in Washington County Maryland. Titcomb “held firmly to the belief that giving out books was but a small part of a library’s purpose,” states her profile in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Her belief in the library as central to a community led her to find ways to make library services available to rural populations. First she worked to create deposit stations at remote locations where books could be returned and ordered. By 1904, she commissioned a book wagon that took books to individual homes in rural America for the first time. This program was undoubtedly foundational to the development of the modern bookmobile program.
THE WPA Rural Library Program
Life in depression era America was bleak. The economic upheaval affected everyone, but the rural poor were especially hard hit. The people who lived in the remote Appalachian mountains of Kentucky faced some of the most brutal conditions of the time. About one-third of adult Kentuckians could not read in the early 1930s. Literacy was soon recognized as a way to raise economic prospects. But with so many residents living in remote regions, traditional libraries could not meet the growing need. In partnership with the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, local women were tasked with the job of creating mobile libraries.
Ethel Perryman supervised women’s projects in the region, and libraries popped up everywhere. Donated books poured in from across the country and within a very short amount of time local women were employed to circulate books deep into the mountains on mules and pack horses. The work was difficult and could be dangerous, but commitment was strong. According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, “In 1936, packhorse librarians served 50,000 families, and, by 1937, 155 public schools.”
While the program ended in 1943, Kentucky still has a strong tradition of mobile libraries and has more bookmobiles than any other state.
Alia Muhammad Baker
In 2003 when it was reported that British forces were on their way to Basra, Iraq and the city government began to destabilize, the local librarian took action. Because looters had destroyed the library in Baghdad, burning several precious volumes, Alia Muhammad Baker orchestrated the secret removal of hundreds of books to safe locations.
Over the course of several weeks she smuggled books home after work, and when things became more urgent, she enlisted the help of neighbors and shopkeepers. One shopkeeper commented on the solemn nature of their work in a piece in the New York Times, “’The people who carried the books, not all of them were educated,’ Mr. Zambqa said. ‘Some of them could not write or could not read, but they knew they were precious books.’”
Shortly after the books were removed, the library burned down in a mysterious fire. Her efforts saved thousands of priceless books, although she still laments the titles she could not save. Baker remained determined to rebuild the library when the war was over.
You can learn more about Baker in the children’s books titled The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq by Jeanette Winter.
There are many other women librarians whose work defied stereotypes and furthered the connection between library and community. Here are few more you can explore:
Weibel, K., & Sable, A. (1979). The Sexuality of the Library Profession: the Male and Female Librarian. In The Role of Women in Librarianship 1876-1976: The Entry, Advancement, and Struggle for Equalization in One Profession. essay, Oryx Press.